A few days after their return from winter recess, 10 second-year students piled onto a bus in front of the Sterling Hall of Medicine for the 20-minute trip to the Guilford home of Erol Fikrig, M.D., Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Medicine, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and professor of epidemiology and public health and of microbial pathogenesis; and of Margaret Fikrig, M.D., assistant professor of medicine. Both specialize in infectious diseases. They were joined by Gerald Friedland, M.D., former director of the AIDS Program at Yale and professor of medicine (AIDS) and of epidemiology (microbial diseases). Friedland has served on the front lines of three epidemics—HIV/AIDS in New York City, HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis in South Africa.

As the group sipped wine and beer in the Fikrigs’ living room, the talk turned to the evening’s theme—The Plague, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel about an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian seaport.

The literary salon was the second in a series of four. In December Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor of medicine (hematology) led first-year students in a discussion of Rebecca Skloot’s history of HeLa cells used widely in medical research, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In January Warren A. Andiman, M.D., FW ’77, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of epidemiology (microbial diseases), hosted a discussion of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map—the story of John Snow, a pioneer epidemiologist who traced the source of a cholera epidemic in London in 1854. Michael L. Schwartz, Ph.D., assistant dean for curriculum and associate professor of neurobiology, concluded the series in February with a discussion of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The salons came out of a discussion among faculty members about the relationship between literature and medicine. “Somebody said something and a light bulb went off,” said Nancy Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, associate dean for student affairs. “We started thinking about books that fit with certain courses. We started thinking biochemistry, we started thinking anatomy, we started thinking cell bio. We put together a committee of students and faculty and came up with these choices.” Another impetus was a program launched this academic year—the medical school provided iPads to all students—which allows students to receive free electronic versions of the books.

First- and second-year students were invited to sign up for the salons—the dual goals were to integrate the humanities into students’ medical education and to provide a relaxed and informal way for students and faculty to interact.

That night at the Fikrigs’ home, Friedland led the discussion of The Plague. “This is about death and dying, and the choices that we make at personal, professional, and community levels,” Friedland said. “To me it has been a textbook of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, better than any journal article I could read.”

One student, Rebecca Vitale, said afterward that the discussion provided a link between the book and modern epidemics. “It talks about the medical profession in the way that it functions in a time of crisis,” she said. “That is a piece of medicine that you never talk about.”

At the final session a few weeks later at Schwartz’s home in Guilford, the discussion veered from the Sacks book to discussions of neurology and to lessons from the accumulated wisdom of the faculty present. Schwartz and the students were joined by David M. Greer, M.D., vice chair of neurology and the inaugural Dr. Harry M. Zimmerman and Dr. Nicholas and Viola Spinelli Associate Professor of Neurology, and Serena Spudich, M.D., associate professor of neurology.

“Could this book have been written now?” first-year Amanda Wallace asked of the book, written in 1985.

“We thought this is the way medicine was at the time,” answered Spudich.

“It’s a historical piece,” added Greer. “We have treatments now. Now we have a ton of stuff we can do. I don’t think you could write this now.”