Literature & Medicine

The relationships between literature and medicine are many, varied, and at least as old as the Greeks. Above the door of the ancient Library at Thebes an inscription read, “Medicine for the Soul” and at the heart of the philosopher Aristotle’s description of the effect of tragic drama on its audience, we find a medical term, catharsis. Even today, in the context of contemporary Western medicine, the experience of illness is shaped around multiple acts of storytelling, as the patient searches for the words to voice their pain and the doctor attempts to frame a diagnosis. And from TV medical dramas like House M.D. to works of contemporary poetry and fiction we find efforts to capture this drama and complexity, the stakes of which are quite literally life and death.

In this course, we will read texts by, for, and about medical practitioners and patients in order to investigate the relations between literature and medicine. We will also collaborate with the Arts in Health Initiative to explore how literature and the arts are being used to improve the experience of patients in Buffalo hospitals. As we range from the ancient philosophical treatises of Hippocrates, to the works of poet-physician William Carlos Williams, from the detective-like case studies of doctors to the autobiographical testimonies of the ill, we will ask: How do doctors, patients, and authors approach the complex ethical conundrums, emotional tangles, and difficulties of representation that so often surround illness?

This course is designed for students who wish to pursue a career in the health professions as well as for anyone with a personal interest in the way literature shapes our understanding and experience of health and illness. As a seminar, a gathering for informed conversation, this course’s success depends heavily on your commitment to careful preparation, considerate and effective discussion, and openness to new ideas. However, it requires no previous knowledge of the material, only interest in it; it is designed for both majors and non-majors. In addition to regular attendance, careful reading, and active participation in discussion, you will be required to maintain a weekly reading journal, turn in three 4-6 page papers, and participate in a group project.

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