Medicine engages life’s existential mysteries: the miraculous moment of birth, the jarring exit at death, the struggle to find meaning in suffering. But medicine is practiced in the mundane world and involves concrete issues like the imbalance of power between physician and patient; the role of quackery, avarice and ego in molding a doctor’s behavior; and the demand for perfection in the face of human fallibility. No insight into its more existential aspects is found in clinical textbooks, properly devoted to physiology, pharmacology and pathology. Rather, it is literature that most vividly grapples with such mysteries, and with the character of physician and patient.
Each spring, I address these nonscientific dimensions of medicine with 12 freshmen at Harvard College in a seminar called “Insights From Narratives of Illness.” We read about a dozen works, from short stories by Turgenev to Samuel Shem’s Rabelaisian hospital novel “The House of God.” The students are generally surprised to learn how the experience of illness touches every corner of human emotion and behavior. But they are even more surprised to discover that even as they read the assigned books, they are often reading, in the background, one of the world’s oldest books. That book is the Bible. Whether read as revealed truth or as a literary work, the Bible is a sourcebook of human psychology and an enduring inspiration for authors trying to capture the drama and dilemmas of medicine....
Some of the students will go on and become doctors, others journalists and teachers, mathematicians and financiers. All will one day be patients. They will then consult clinical textbooks or the Internet to learn about their disease, and some may also turn to self-help books. But it is in literature that they will find the sharpest revelations about the dilemmas of physicians and the yearnings of a patient’s soul. And, for believer and atheist alike, the Bible should be a book to turn to.
I teach in a Medical School Department called "Medical History and Bioethics". We have some superb historians and bioethicists. My colleagues have been reluctant to consider transforming ourselves into a broader "Medical Humanities" program. There are competing arguments on that question. Groopman, a brilliant writer on medicine, powerfully reminds us of the potential contribution of literature to the enduring questions at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship and the experiences of healing and illness.