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Seeing the whole person instead of the disease

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Fall


racing the rise of medical technology from ancient examples of trepanation to the advent of the X-ray, John H. Lienhard, Ph.D., host of a popular National Public Radio science program, urged physicians to look at the whole human rather than individual ailments. The keynote speaker at the 50th annual meeting of Associates of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University on May 6, Dr. Lienhard spoke on the dangers of reducing the person to an illness during treatment. He is the M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston.

“Medicine has to find its way back to the tough problem of curing the whole body instead of just pieces of it,” Dr. Lienhard said during his talk, The Lesion Within: What Happened to Medicine When 19th Century Ingenuity Seized Upon an 18th Century Perception? His radio program, Engines of Our Ingenuity, describes the way art, technology and ideas have shaped mankind.

According to Dr. Lienhard, 18th century physicians discovered how “specific disorders caused suffering and death” and in the 19th century physicians invented stethoscopes and X-rays to peer inside the body without violating it. But, he argued, technology shifted emphasis from the patient to the disease. “Handling a bedpan is no less essential to the healing process than transplanting a human heart,” he said.

The following morning Dr. Lienhard returned to the relationship between technology and medicine at Grand Rounds in the Fitkin Amphitheater. He praised computers and their use in medicine, but cautioned that they affect human thought by creating on a two-dimensional screen what “the mind’s eye” once had to imagine. Medieval architects, he said, designed Gothic cathedrals, not with advanced mathematics or detailed drawings, but from a vision in their minds. “See to it that your children in public schools aren’t allowed to avoid thought by pushing buttons,” he said. “Believe me, the eye of the mind is under attack.”

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