Insights from Narratives of Illness

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2023

Jerome E. Groopman (Harvard Medical School)
Freshman Seminar 23K     4 credits (spring term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 12

A physician occupies a unique perch, regularly witnessing life’s great mysteries: the miracle of birth, the perplexing moment of death, and the struggle to find meaning in suffering. It is no wonder that narratives of illness have been of interest to both physician and non-physician writers. This seminar will examine and interrogate both literary and journalistic dimensions of medical writing. The investigation will be chronological, beginning with “classic” narratives by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Kafka, and then moving on to more contemporary authors such as William Carlos Williams, Richard Selzer, Oliver Sacks, Susan Sontag, and Philip Roth. Controversial and contentious subjects are sought in these writings: the imbalance of power between physician and patient; how different religions frame the genesis and outcome of disease; the role of quackery, avarice, and ego in molding doctors’ behavior; whether character changes for better or worse when people face their mortality; what is normal and what is abnormal behavior based on culture, neuroscience, and individual versus group norms. The presentation of illness in journalism will be studied in selected readings from the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s Science sections, as well as periodicals like the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the Atlantic Monthly. The members of the seminar will analyze how the media accurately present the science of medicine or play to “pop culture.” The seminar will study not only mainstream medical journalists, but so called alternative medical writers such as Andrew Weil and celebrity health voices like Gwyneth Paltrow. Patients with different diseases will be invited to speak to the members of the seminar about their experiences. Students will try their hands at different forms of medical writing, such as an editorial on physician-assisted suicide that would appear in a newspaper and a short story that describes a personal or family experience with illness and the medical system.

See also: Spring 2023