Tricks of the trade

As Imperial’s Magician in Residence, Dr Will Houstoun is working with students on the crossovers between magic and medicine.

Words: Clare Thorp / Photography: Angela Moore

As a professional magician, Dr Will Houstoun is used to people thinking that he’s in the entertainment business. “People often think that magic can only be trivial light entertainment,” says Houstoun, Magician in Residence at Imperial. “Being able to show that there is a depth to it, and that it’s something that can inform very different practices in a beneficial way, feels really exciting to me.”

Houstoun – who fell in love with magic as a child – originally pursued a ‘proper’ career, studying for a degree in mechanical engineering. “At the end of my degree, I decided that I liked magic more than engineering.” He later completed a PhD on the use of magic as an educational tool in the Victorian period. “All of the work that I now do flows out of the idea of using magic as a tool to achieve something other than mere entertainment,” he says.

For the past decade, Houstoun has been working with Imperial’s Professor of Surgical Education, Roger Kneebone, to explore the intersection between magic and medicine. The starting point? Both magicians and surgeons practise a complex, technical and dexterous skill. But over the course of their collaboration, a more significant parallel has emerged: that of interaction with an audience, whether that’s somebody watching a magic trick or a patient in a medical consultation.

In fact, magic performances and medical consultations often have a similar dynamic. “One kind of magic is done close up, for one or two people. There’s a massive power imbalance because you know how the trick is done and your audience doesn’t. To engage meaningfully you have to quickly build rapport and let them know that magic will be a safe and fun experience.” Likewise, in a five-minute consultation, a GP needs to build trust with their patient and build a connection quickly to generate the best outcomes.

The doctor-patient relationship is a vital part of being a GP, but one that can be challenging to teach. Students need to realise that having all the required medical knowledge is only part of the equation – just as, in magic, knowing the secret of the trick is just one part that must be supported by being able to perform in a way that everyone can enjoy. Houstoun and Kneebone run sessions where students learn to perform a magic trick for an audience, then think about what they can take away from the experience and put into a medical context. “It allows people to make discoveries about the way they interact in a playful environment,” says Houstoun.

As well as his work at Imperial, Houstoun also works with Breathe Arts Health Research, an organisation that uses magic to help young people with hemiplegia, a condition that causes a partial paralysis on one side of the body and issues with fine motor skills and co-ordination. “They come for a ten-day magic programme, and each trick they learn includes actions that will help them in day-to-day life. For example, they might practise a trick that involves picking up things with their first finger and thumb, which translates into being able to do up buttons on a shirt.”

When he’s not working in the medical sphere, Houstoun also uses magic to help film, TV and theatre practitioners tell stories. He developed the magic for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, taught Mark Rylance to perform a card trick for BBC1’s Wolf Hall and is co-designing the magic for The National Theatre’s production of Road Dahl’s The Witches.

“There are always interesting problems to solve in my job. One day it might be helping students to think about the importance of doctor/patient interaction, the next it might be working out how to change children into mice onstage.”

Dr Will Houstoun is Imperial’s Magician in Residence.