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What the humanities mean to medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Winter


When the gastroenterologist Howard M. Spiro, M.D., launched the Program for Humanities in Medicine in 1983, his goal was not to turn physicians into artists. Rather, he wanted to provide opportunities for students and physicians to explore realms beyond science and medicine. The program he founded now has its third director, and the School of Medicine has seen the creation of a symphony orchestra, a student theater group, reflective writing programs, and art classes. These artistic endeavors offer not just creative outlets but also relief from the stresses and challenges of medicine.

Yale Medicine spoke with Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, about the connections between medicine and the humanities, and why they matter.

What is the value of incorporating the humanities into medicine?
As somebody who has spent most of his career focused on science and medicine, I find that the arts and humanities add a welcome diversion. For anyone, no matter what you do, life is more interesting when you bring the humanities into it. Having said that, I do worry that there is some confusion between the adjective humane and the noun humanities, with the implication that someone who is interested in the humanities is more humane than somebody whose focus is on the natural sciences. Some people are more humane than others, but I don’t think there is any correlation with a devotion to the humanities.

How do the humanities affect the culture of the School of Medicine?
I suspect that we attract students with an interest in the humanities because we’re Yale, the most humanities-focused of the Ivy League schools. It’s wonderful that we have an orchestra, a program in humanities, and a history of medicine department. Those are programs that are not essential for a medical school, but they make Yale a more interesting medical school.

Are art and the humanities ways to deal with the challenges of becoming a doctor?
Students and practicing physicians alike need an escape from their jobs. Medicine and medical research can be stressful, and there needs to be more to life than our work. My favorite parts of college were the arts and humanities, because I took so much science. I still have memories of my art history course and studying Chicago architecture. Does involvement in the humanities make you a better doctor? I think it makes you a better person, a healthier person.

What pursuits in the arts or humanities do you enjoy?
Opera is my major diversion. When the curtain goes up at Lincoln Center, I forget the medical school for a time. It’s a nice escape.