Consider the term ‘medical science’. Easy. For most of us it conjures laboratories, test-tubes, scientists in white coats, evidence-based research, miracle medical breakthroughs. Medical science trips off the tongue so naturally – it’s surely one word, not two. The bond between ‘medical’ and ‘science’ is super-glued. It’s solid and unbreakable. We’ve closed the gap between these words, left no cracks to fall through. Medical science: a term to lean on, a term to trust.
Now consider the term ‘medical humanities’. Not so easy. Or so I surmise from the confused look on people’s faces when I tell them that the medical humanities are my field of research. It’s as if the words ‘medical’ and ‘humanities’ are unrelated strangers who need to be coaxed from separate, distant rooms and forced together for an awkward conversation where neither can quite understand the other’s language or point of view. What on earth would they talk about? What would be the point? What’s the use of the medical humanities? Where’s the miracle medical breakthrough in that research?
This apparently uncomfortable relationship between the words ‘medical’ and ‘humanities’ should give pause for thought. How did we get to a situation where we no longer naturally foreground the humanities in medicine? How is that discussions still rage in some quarters about whether or not the humanities ‘belong’ in medical education? How is that those discussions so often question the ‘usefulness’ or ‘uselessness’ of such teaching? It often seems to me that in the house shared by medicine, science and the humanities, the humanities are tolerated as the pleasant but rather irrelevant little sister of two much more important older brothers. We have forgotten the real family history, which is that science and medicine are both children of the humanities.
Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once gave an address to doctors at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It was later published as the essay, “Can a Doctor be a Humanist?” In it, Davies discusses the staff of Hermes, which is often employed (instead of the Rod of Asclepius) as a symbol of medicine in North America. Two serpents wind around the staff. Davies asks:
Are they damned ghosts? No: they are vividly alive and relevant. They are Knowledge and Wisdom, and in your profession the caduceus is a perpetual reminder that the god Hermes … requires you to hold them in balance and to keep one from devouring the other.”
In the modern era, writes Davies, the Knowledge serpent represents Science, and the Wisdom serpent is Humanism:
Knowledge … comes from without; it is what [the doctor] acquires during his long and demanding education in order that he may direct it outward upon his patients. It is what you bring to bear upon the disease that confronts you in your patients. But Wisdom … has its origin within, and it is what makes him look not at the disease but at the bearer of the disease. It is what creates the link that unites the healer with his patient, and the exercise of which makes him a true physician, a true healer, a true child of Hermes. It is Wisdom that tells the physician how to make the patient a partner in his own cure.”
Davies warned against allowing one serpent (Science) to dominate the other (Wisdom):
unless they are reconciled and each made a supporter of the other, they can make the staff of Hermes lopsided, and wanting in its true power.”
He wrote these words in the 1980s, in the relatively early days of medicine’s scientific and technological revolution. The risk of lop-sidedness is much more pressing three decades later with what Thomas Friedman calls the ‘age of acceleration’ in full swing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) evolving faster than human intelligence.
The ancient image of the serpents entwined on Herme’s staff fits well with the idea of ‘entanglement’ that underpins much of current medical humanities research. Rather than set science up against the humanities, as a priori opposites, or trying to ‘prove’ the ‘usefulness’ of, say, poetry in medicine, the many disciplines involved in contemporary medical humanities research are driven by a desire to explore the multifarious and complex intersections and connections that form our lived experience of the world.
The medical humanities … names a series of intersections, exchanges and entanglements between the biomedical sciences, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences.”
Interestingly, and excitingly, the same desire to cope with entanglement is astir in the Science serpent. In “The Invasion Equation“, a recent article in The New Yorker, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses a new vision for research about metastatic cancer, one that derives from studies in ecology and acknowledges the cancer cell as a player in an integrated environment involving ‘soil and seed’. It is (quel horreur!) a holistic vision. Mukherjee writes:
In the field of oncology, “holistic” has become a patchouli-scented catchcall for untested folk remedies … Still, as ambitious cancer researchers study soil as well as seed, one sees the beginning of a new approach. It would return us to the true meaning of “holistic”: to take the body, the organism, its anatomy, its physiology – this infuriatingly intricate web – as a whole. Such an approach would help us understand the phenomenon in all its vexing diversity… It would encourage doctors to ask not just what you have but what you are.”
We need all our ways of thinking if we are to negotiate the intersections, exchanges and entanglements of “this infuriatingly intricate web”. We might, for example, follow Louis MacNiece for a moment, into his poem “Snow“:
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. Her PhD research into what fiction illuminates about the lived experience of illness is co-supervised by the University of Otago Department of English and Linguistics and the Department of General Practice (Medicine).
- Thomas Friedman. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. London: Allen Lane, 2016. Pp 86-87.
- Robertson Davies. “Can a Doctor Be a Humanist?”, in The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books, (New York: Penguin, 1996). P. 97
- Siddhartha Mukherjee.”The Invasion Equation“, in The New Yorker, Sep 11, 2017, p 49
- Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, eds. The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016.