Introduction to the Medical Humanities

An écorché figure (life-size), lying prone on a table Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images An écorché figure (life-size), lying prone on a table: the right arm hangs down below the table. Red chalk and pencil drawing, with bodycolour, by C. Landseer, 1813 (?). 1813 By: Charles LandseerPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

This course introduces students to major concepts in the medical humanities by considering a variety of texts and genres from the early nineteenth century to today. Over the course of the semester, students will read literary texts and cultural histories by and about medicine. Literary texts will include H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Students will also encounter cultural histories about health, illness, and medical ethics from Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map to Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. By analyzing the ways that the medical profession was shaped by emergent biological explanations of racial and sexual difference, students will unpack the ways that health and medicine continue to be shaped by their early entanglements with women’s bodies, colonialism, and slavery. In the final project, students will choose a medical innovation (device, chemical, or procedure) to analyze. Drawing on their knowledge of critical issues in medicine, from vivisection to HeLa cells, students will make a video explaining the complex history surrounding a medical innovation of their choice as well as how it works and its primary use, building technical writing skills at the same time they synthesize major ideas from the course. In unraveling the ways that the medical profession grew out of imperial sciences and morality, students’ final project will analyze how these predicates continue to inform popular representations of “health” and “illness” through which we critique ourselves and others.

Students learn the history of medical experimentation to explore the ethical questions in the field of medicine through a humanistic lens.

HeLa Cells. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Students stay how the history of medicine is also embedded in British imperial expansion and the scientific racism that often undergirded it.

Emile Edouard Mouchy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Students use historical contexts to analyze contemporary debates in bioethics, including patient’s rights to their tissues, experimentation practices on human cell lines, and informed consent.

James Gillray, The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, 1805. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Learning Objectives

  1. Rhetorical Awareness. Students compose texts in multiple genres, using multiple modes with attention to rhetorical situations.
  1. Critical Thinking and Reading Resulting in Writing. As they undertake scholarly inquiry and produce their own arguments, students summarize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the ideas of others. 
  1. Writing as Process. Students understand and practice writing as a process, recursively implementing strategies of research, drafting, revision, editing, and reflection.
  1. Students develop competence in major communication modalities (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) and understand that modalities work together.
  1. Health. Students learn how ideas about “health” are a product of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century efforts to treat large populations of individuals. In this respect, health is not necessarily something that an individual has or does not, but acts as a normative metric established by the medical profession that uses population trends to understand individual patients. Students unpack how definitions of “health” emerge from cultures of white supremacy that create unequal access and treatment for people of color.

Examples of Student Work

This Medical Object Video Project from ENGL 1102 focuses on the PET Scan.
This Medical Object Video Project from ENGL 1102 focuses on the EEG.