Applying Humanities Skills to Medicine
Over the course of Phase 1 of Northwestern’s medical school curriculum, first- and second-year medical students complete two sequences of seminars in medical humanities and bioethics.
“Medical humanities and applied arts seminars enable students to approach their work from new perspectives and with new tools: they learn to read closely, to observe with an aesthetic as well as a scientific eye, to hone their skills in the performative aspects of clinical practice and so on,” said course director Catherine Belling, PhD, associate professor of Medical Education. “The interactions between clinicians and patients is always embedded in cultural, historical and social contexts, and the seminars help prepare students for those key aspects of their future practice.”
This winter, first-year medical students shared their experiences in courses focused on the applied arts.
In the seminar Head Ecorche: The Anatomy of Portraiture, students learn to construct their own anatomical sculpture using a life-size artificial skull.
By using clay, students develop a three-dimensional understanding of how to sculpt forms in space. Melinda Whitmore, MFA, course instructor, lectures students on how facial muscles govern facial structure and expression.
“What is the first thing you see?” Alvin Telser, PhD, associate professor emeritus of Cell and Molecular Biology, asked his students during the Art of Observation seminar. “What draws one student’s eye to the work is usually different than the others. I hope they begin to look at and observe as much visual information as a group might observe,” he said.
Telser teaches the Art of Observation seminar and guides students through visits to the Art Institute of Chicago to enhance their observation skills. “This medical humanities class will enhance my development into a clinician because it pushed me to look for detail and qualities within each artwork that may not be obvious at first glance and make multiple interpretations about the artist’s goals or meaning,” said Beverly Onyekwuluje, a first-year medical student.
In one exercise, students sit with their backs to a painting and sketch what they think the painting looks like while listening to a peer describe the work.
During “Drawing Inside a Jar: Drawing Anatomical Specimens,” students explore ethics, science and aesthetics. The course, taught by artist Riva Lehrer, combines drawing and discussions on the ethics of displaying human specimens. “[This] has not only been a good opportunity to learn a new skill that is different from what I would typically use in medical school, but has also challenged my thinking about how we view the human body through a medical lens,” said Arleen Li, a first-year medical student.
Students chose a specimen with a disease to draw, and then researched and presented on their topic. “The class offers us an opportunity to better understand the form of disease,” said Bilal Naved, a first-year medical student. “We closely study and embrace the physical form of a disease by drawing specimens. Then, we seek individuals living with the diseases we drew and research how their condition affects their life experience. In doing so, we flip the traditional paradigm of medical education, which often has us focus on scientific mechanisms of disease and can distance students from what it’s like to live with a condition.”