The rise of the medical humanities

Belinda Jack in Times Higher Education:

Feature-illustration-220115-0_450The cynical account for the rise of the medical humanities – a newish interdisciplinary area that explores the social, historical and cultural dimensions of medicine – would be an economic one. At a time of retrenchment in some subjects at some universities, disciplines are under pressure to demonstrate their practical value. Recent research that claims to show that reading novels promotes empathy would be an example of literature’s utility, particularly for medical students. There’s money in medicine and not so much in the humanities. But how new is this field or set of fields? The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates claimed that “wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity”, suggesting both that medicine is an “art” and that there is a crucial association between medicine and the “human” dimension of the humanities.

In terms of literature, as soon as the novel rose to prominence in the 18th century a good many doctors more than dabbled in writing, often fiction. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) trained as a doctor and wrote the best-selling novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and Keats (1795-1821) turned to poetry in part because of the trauma he suffered by the experience of physically restraining fully conscious patients in order to perform surgery without anaesthesia. Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), German writer, poet, essayist, dramatist and friend of Goethe, was an army surgeon before achieving fame as a writer.

More here.