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Professor argues for humanites in medicine

By Ellie Hudd
On March 5, 2014

A lecture on the intersection of humanities and medicine as dictated by an author in the antebellum U.S. is not necessarily something I'd seek out on a Wednesday evening, but Dr. Sari Altschuler's lecture, entitled "From Empathy to Epistemiology," was a rewarding academic engagement.
Altschuler is an assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida and is part of the American Antiquarian Society. She is currently positioned at Clark University for a fellowship. The lecture was centered on the work of a particular author, Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird, a physician who sought new inroads to medical knowledge via his love of literature. While this topic may seem incredibly specific, Altschuler was excellent at positing potential applications of her tightly focused work to the medical field.
Specifically, she argued that scholars and medical practitioners should "use humanities to cultivate productive empathy that aids in treatment."
She framed Bird's book-which tells the story of a man who accidentally dies by his own hand and projects his soul and spirit into various bodies, including that of a slave-as a larger attempt at knowing the nature of the human body in both the medical and sociopolitical sense. When Bird's soul occupies these bodies, Altschuler explained, he is able to feel their pain and understand a significant part of their daily lives. Altschuler went on to describe how this novel inspired Bird to seek knowledge about the bodily experience of medical patients and individuals in general. Bird advocated for a paradigm called "imaginative experimentation," which posits that medical epistemology can be attained through conceptualizing and philosophizing the experience of another-in other words, a systematic, humanities-centered approach to attaining empathy.
Tom Long, a UConn professor of English recently appointed to the School of Nursing, seemed enthusiastic about the applicability and salience of Altschuler's work, despite the increasing divide between STEM disciplines (which encompass medical sciences) and the humanities.
"Medicine has become a sort of technical life science," Long said, adding that, "a big debate going on right now is about medicine's lack of a theoretical foundation."
Altschuler argues that we can ultimately gather this foundation through literature like Bird's. Her talk indicated a remarkable awareness of the nuances of Bird's work; while on the surface, the argument for 19th-century literature as an informant of medicine seems strange, Altschuler explained and defended with ease the particular elements of work like Bird's from which the medical field stands to gain.
The overarching themes of Altschuler's talk hold particular salience in relation to the current directions of the medical field. Altschuler discussed the connections between mind and body, particularly in relation to the experience of pain. Altschuler was impressive in her ability to take considerably broad topics and lend them concrete form through her discussion of Bird's novel. In particular, she discussed in depth how the character in Bird's novel came to feel the pain of the bodies he inhabited, prompting a discussion of disorders involving chronic pain and how different kinds of pain impact each body and spirit differently.
"The somatic life becomes the life of the spirit," Altschuler said.
Overall, Altschuler's lecture was highly thought-provoking in nature, even if the scientist in me was hesitant to entirely accept her critiques of the current structure of medical research. She provided more than enough justification for the idea that the humanities can not only inform medicine, but renew the capacity of the medical field to treat people rather than just patients.

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