Physician-authors, including Abraham Verghese, MD, and efforts such as Stanford's Arts, Humanities and Medicine Program draw the general public's attention to issues important to the medical field. They may also elicit reader empathy by discussing real-world problems, even in fictional contexts, while situating literature and the arts in an influential position.
This relationship between medicine and literature is longstanding and complex. A Stanford News article discusses some examples of public health and humanism in historical literature and profiles the work of Alvan Ikoku, MD, PhD, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford.
From the piece:
As a scholar of 19th- and 20-century movements in international literature and health, [Ikoku] studies the place of long narrative forms, especially novels, in the development of tropical medicine and global health.
In his current book project, Forms of Global Health, Ikoku reads not Dickens or Gaskell, but writers such as Joseph Conrad and Andre Gide, who added to a "library of metaphors about the tropics and colonial spaces," one that was referenced by "the fathers of tropical medicine" – returnees from colonial medical services, particularly malariologists, who wrote and lectured publicly about the need to establish a new medical specialty for the colonies.
Ikoku points out that literature provided an opportunity for readers to not simply feel an emotion, but to also actively help define a medical field and its knowledge base.
The article notes that Ikoku taught a course for Stanford students from many disciplines this spring called "The Literature of Global Health," examining "how literary and medical writers have used narrative to explore the ethics of care in the developing world."
Previously: Thoughts on the arts and humanities in shaping a medical career, Medical students and author Khaled Hosseini share their muse with Stanford community and Intersection of arts and medicine a benefit to both, report finds
Photo by Ben Sutherland