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A great university, a universe of intellectual treasures

The many resources of Yale University are too inviting to overlook; now a new website explores opportunities for making connections between medicine and the humanities.

One of the advantages of being at Yale School of Medicine, whether as a student, faculty member, or staff member, is being a part of one of the world’s great universities. And yet this is easy to forget at times. We focus so intently on the work at hand—learning, teaching, caring for patients, and pursuing research—that the “world at our feet” that exists on the rest of the Yale campus is sometimes all but invisible.

Stop for a moment to consider what that world contains. I looked at the Yale events calendar one day recently and found an amazing array of things that were of interest. An exhibit of Victorian paintings was opening at the Yale Center for British Art, while, across the street, visitors to Yale Art Gallery could look at works by Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh. On the opposite corner, Charles S. Dutton was starring in “Death of a Salesman” at the Yale Rep. The New Yorker’s Beijing-based staff writer was talking that day about China. Actress Jodie Foster had just made a visit to campus. The founder of Indian technology giant Infosys was speaking about his country’s future. And to round things out, the work of Yale ocean scientists was featured in an exhibition at the Peabody Museum. Back on the medical school campus, the Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra had just given its spring performance, and the Program for the Humanities in Medicine was winding up its season of talks.

Add to this list the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate courses open to Yale medical students and the university’s many interdisciplinary programs involving medical school faculty, and the picture of Yale as a unique—and quite extraordinary—intellectual resource comes into focus. Unlike many of our peer institutions, the medical campus at Yale is geographically very accessible to the university. This makes exposure to and collaboration with scholars in other fields all that much easier.

In part to make the most of this proximity, the school engaged in a strategic planning process for the medical humanities several years ago. Chaired by John Harley Warner, Ph.D., the chair and Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine, the committee made a number of recommendations to make the medical humanities and the arts more visible and vibrant at Yale School of Medicine. It also led to the formation of the Yale Medical Humanities and the Arts Council, which, as stated on its website, “is committed to fostering the use of the humanities, social sciences, and the arts as a lens for examining issues in health, medicine, and healing.” Led by John Warner, Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., and Gretchen K. Berland, M.D., the council “seeks to publicize events and initiatives, cultivate a network of people and programs, and promote interdisciplinary communication and community awareness by enhancing the visibility of the rich resources and activities at Yale and in our region.”

For example:

  • The council has assembled a roster of 75 faculty mentors who are available to medical students who wish to do their theses on medical humanities topics, and has created a set of guidelines to help students pursue such topics.
  • The council is also maintaining a listing of courses across the Yale campus that may be of interest to medical students.
  • A new website, Medical Humanities and the Arts, highlights the above-mentioned resources and includes a calendar of events, bibliography of suggested readings in the medical humanities, and a gallery of images. I encourage you to visit the site and sign up for the accompanying email newsletter.

This is all in addition to the longstanding Program for the Humanities in Medicine, mentioned above, which continues to bring a wide variety of visitors to campus and this year hosted 18 events. Speakers included political scientist Salim Simba, Ph.D., of Makerere University in Uganda, who spoke on “The Life of Scholars, Academicians, and Doctors During the Reign Of Idi Amin”; author Jonah Lehrer, whose lecture was titled “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”; and oncologist Barbara Burtness, M.D., who spoke about “Abu Ghraib: Lessons for American Medical Schools.” Biomedical engineer Mark Salzman, Ph.D., gave a talk titled “Making Martinis for My Father: Care, Change, and the Duration of Medicines.” Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Barry Schaller, J.D., talked about “Understanding Bioethics and the Law: The Promises and Perils of the Brave New World of Biotechnology.”

Just as we benefit from the close proximity of the central campus, so too can we offer valuable resources to our colleagues in other parts of Yale, and it is likely that, as the Medical Humanities and the Arts Council’s effort continues, we will see more evidence of exchange in both directions. Meanwhile I hope you will take a moment to discover all that is available to us and profit from it.