Clown Doctors in NYC

Summary: The article, Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine, explains the close relationship westernized clowns, specifically a New York City group of clowns called The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, have to non-westernized shamans. The Clown Care Unit (CCU) is a group of professional clowns who work in pediatric wards in New York City hospitals with a goal of providing a “more child friendly hospital environment”. A typical workday for the CCU includes providing entertainment for children and their families in waiting rooms, distracting anxious families, and comforting children (and their families) during painful and frightening procedures. Their main purpose is to spread joy and uplift spirits wherever children may be found throughout the hospital. On the other hand shamans are people who interact with supernatural worlds, sometimes going into supernatural trances, to connect with the spirit world and cure illnesses via magic. The relationship between the CCU and shamans is quite simple. A lot of the popular and common tricks that the clowns preform originated from shamans. As the article states, both clowns and shamans mediate between order and chaos, sacred and profane, real and supernatural, culture and anticulture, or nature. This mediation of culture and nature is central to the healing arts and sciences. Clowns especially (and shamans) provoke emotional responses. These emotional responses can be linked to psychological healing.


The healers in this article are the clowns (Clown Care Unit). Even though as stated in the discussion they don’t claim to cure anything. However, also stated in the conclusion of the article, the clown doctors employ social healing, suggestion, and manipulation of cultural symbols drawn from the society’s medical system.

The clowns really could be of any social status since being a clown is just a temporary identity or character the people who dress up as the clowns are in for some odd hours during their workdays. Referring to just the clowns though, I would say they have a good social status as they are respected and acknowledged in the hospital setting, in which they work, as they aid in healing patients.

Some techniques the clowns use include what the article states as medical symbolism, magic tricks, parodies, puppets etc. One an example of a technique used through medical symbolism is one of the CCU clowns poking fun at physicians and their procedures. This is to lighten up the atmosphere, make the patient laugh or feel less afraid of the sometimes painful and frightening, procedures, and in return provide psychosocial support (social healing). To me it’s to help the kids to get relaxed and make the procedure not seem as bad as it may appear to be. They use these techniques to interact with their patients on a friendly and comforting level. CCU clowns interact with children patients and their families to reduce tension, anxiety, and fear created by the illness and make for a happier and more lightened environment. According to the article, CCU clowns also help the patients and their families provide meaning to the illness experience and resolve personal and social problems that result from it, which in turn increases patient satisfaction, compliance, and perhaps outcomes.

The CCU clowns preform their form of healing (folk sector) in a very modern and biomedical westernized healthcare system, also called the professional sector. The clowns work together with mainstream healthcare providers, nurses, and doctors. Healthcare is delivered in a collaborative and biomedical westernized way with doctors and nurses working as a team (using high tech instruments) to cure their patients, while the clowns offer a folk sector (alternative) way of healing (social healing) for the patients as well. The body and symptoms in a biomedical (professional) health care system are looked at in ways to prevent and treat diseases that cause illness and death based on the symptoms at hand with their patients (physical symptoms, biology, and genetics). This includes using biotechnology techniques where biomedical researchers (including doctors and nurses) study biological processes and diseases with the ultimate goal of developing effective treatments and cures (UNM). The body and symptoms in a folk sector, which the CCU clowns use, understand the body and symptoms in a psychological way and attempt to provide comfort (social healing) via magic, medical symbolism, jokes etc. for their patients.



Linda Miller Van Blerkom, “Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine”, Medical Anthropology Quartlerly, New Series, Vol 9. No. 4 (1995): 462-475, accessed July 14, 2014.

UNM, “What is Biomedical Research”, accessed July 14, 2014.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. Jamila Carver says:

    These CCU clowns seem to have many comparisons with our biomedical doctors in the U.S. They seem to administer health needs the patients just in an entertainment, happy, less painful kind of way. Being able to bring out a more positive thoughts to healing and medicine is more relieving for patients, especially the one who had seek help in areas of popular and folk sectors. These is say how doctors techniques in medicine don’t work, maybe some are unfriendly, and it is not worth the money, but having an experience like this should help changes those minds.
    The CCU clowns do seem to be credible and effective being able not to just touch and lift up the younger individuals but also the parents and families. Happiness is a word I used to describe the difference between someone is healthy or ill. I feel that being in a happy state of mind can make one health any possibly stay healthy longer, cancels out any unneeded stress, possible mental disorders, and calms any harsh moods one might have had from previous providers. For the CCU clowns to do what they do really changes the way hospital settings can be, and for them to do this really shows that they care more about the patient and are going outside their line of work to further make the visit for the patient beneficial.

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