Innovation Through Tradition: Rediscovering the "Humanist" in the Medical Humanities

J Med Humanit. 2016 Dec;37(4):371-387. doi: 10.1007/s10912-015-9364-2.


Throughout its fifty-year history, the role of the medical humanist and even the name "medical humanities" has remained raw, dynamic and contested. What do we mean when we call ourselves "humanists" and our practice "medical humanities?" To address these questions, we turn to the concept of origin narratives. After explaining the value of these stories, we focus on one particularly rich origin narrative of the medical humanities by telling the story of how a group of educators, ethicists, and scholars struggling to define their relatively new field rediscovered the studia humanitatis, a Renaissance curriculum for learning and teaching. Our origin narrative is composed of two intertwined stories-the history of the studia humanitatis itself and the story of the scholars who rediscovered it. We argue that as an origin narrative the studia humanitatis grounds the medical humanities as both an engaged moral practice and pedagogical project. In the latter part of the paper, we use this origin narrative to show how medical humanists working in translational science can use their understanding of their historical roots to do meaningful work in the world.

Keywords: History of medicine; Medical humanities; Origin narrative; Renaissance humanism; Rhetoric; Translational science.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humanities / education*
  • Humanities / history*