Category Archives: Classics and Medicine

Humanitas, History, Empathy

In the nineteenth century, no one was devising courses, workshops, or coding schemes to foster empathic care-giving.  In both Europe and America, students were expected to learn medicine’s existential lessons in the manner they long had:  through mastery of Latin and immersion in ancient writings.  This fact should not surprise us:  knowledge of Latin was the great nineteenth-century signpost of general knowledge.  It was less an index of education achieved than testimony to educability per se.  As such, it was an aspect of cultural endowment essential to anyone aspiring to a learned profession.

I have written elsewhere about the relationship of training in the classics to medical literacy throughout the century.[1]  Here I focus on the “felt” aspect of this cultural endowment: the relationship of classical training to the kind of Humanitas (humanity) that was foundational to empathic caregiving.

The conventional argument has it that the role of Latin in medicine progressively diminished throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, as experimental medicine and laboratory science took hold, first in Germany and Austria, then in France, and finally in Britain and the United States, and transformed the nature of medical training.  During this time, physicians who valued classical learning, so the argument goes, were the older men who clung to what Christopher Lawrence terms “an epistemology of individual experience.”  In Britain, aficionados of the classics were the older, hospital-based people who sought to circumscribe the role of science in clinical practice.  Like their younger colleagues, they used the rhetoric of science to bolster their authority but, unlike the younger men, they “resisted the wholesale conversion of bedside practice into a science – any science.”  For these men, clinical medicine might well be based on science, but its actual practice was “an art which necessitated that its practitioners be the most cultured of men and the most experienced reflectors on the human condition.”[2]

For Lawrence, classical learning signified the gentleman-physician’s association of bedside practice with the breadth of wisdom associated with general medicine; as such, it left them “immune from sins begotten by the narrowness of specialization.”  In America, I believe, the situation was different.  Here the classics did not (or did not only) sustain an older generation intent on dissociating scientific advance from clinical practice.  Rather, in the final decades of the century, the classics sustained the most progressive of our medical educators in their efforts to resist the dehumanization of sick people inherent in specialization and procedural medicine.  Medical educators embraced experimental medicine and laboratory science, to be sure, but they were also intent on molding physicians whose sense of professional self transcended the scientific rendering of the clinical art.  Seen thusly, the classics were more than a pathway to the literacy associated with professional understanding and communication; they were also a humanizing strategy for revivifying the Hippocratic Oath in the face of malfunctioning physiological systems and diseased organs.

Consider the case of Johns Hopkins Medical College, which imported the continental, experimental model to theUnited States and thereby became the country’s first modern medical school in 1892.   In the medical value assigned to the classics, three of Hopkins’ four founding fathers were second to none.  William Welch, the pathologist who headed the founding group of professors (subsequently known as “The Big Four”), only reluctantly began medical training in 1872, since it meant abandoning his first ambition:  to become a Greek tutor and ultimately a professor of classics at his alma mater, Yale University.  Welch’s love of the classics, especially Greek literature and history, spanned his lifetime.  “Everything that moves in the modern world has its roots in Greece,” he opined in 1907.

William Osler, the eminent Professor of Medicine who hailed from the Canadian woodlands north of Toronto, began his education as a rambunctious student at the Barrie Grammar School, where he and two friends earned the appellation “Barrie’s Bad Boys.”  On occasion, the little band would give way to “a zeal for study” that led them after lights-out to “jump out of our dormitory window some six feet above the ground and study our Xenophon, Virgil or Caesar by the light of the full moon.”  Osler moved on to the Trinity College School where, in a curriculum overripe with Latin and the classics, he finished first in his class and received the Chancellor’s Prize of 1866.  Two years later, he capped his premedical education at Trinity College with examination papers on Euclid, Greek (Medea and Hippolytus), Latin Prose, Roman History, Pass Latin (Terence), and Classics (Honours).[3]  Ever mindful of his classical training, Osler not only urged his Hopkins students “to read widely outside of medicine,” but admonished them to “Start at once a bed-side library and spend the last half hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity,”  among whom he listed Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, and Epictetus.[4]

When Howard Kelly, the first Hopkins Professor of Gynecology and arguably the foremost abdominal surgeon of his time, began college in 1873, he was awarded the Universityof Pennsylvania’s matriculate Latin Prize for his thesis, “The Elements of Latin Prose Composition.”  Kelly, like Welch and Osler, was a lifetime lover of the classics, and he relished summer vacations, when he could “catch up on his Virgil and other classics.[5]

Of the fourth Hopkins founding father, the reclusive, morphine-addicted surgeon William Stewart Halsted, there is no evidence of a life-long passion for the ancients, though his grounding in Latin and Greek at Phillips Academy, which he attended from 1863 to 1869, was typically rigorous.  Far more impressive bona fides belong to one of  Halsted’s early trainees, Harvey Cushing, who came to Hopkins in 1897 and became the hospital’s resident surgeon in 1898.  Cushing, the founder of modern neurosurgery, entered Yale in 1887, where he began his college career “walking familiarly in the classics” with courses that included “geometry, Livy, Homer, Cicero, German, Algebra, and Greek prose.”  In February, 1888, he wrote his father that Yale was giving him and his friends “our fill of Cicero.  We have read the Senectute and Amicitia and are reading his letter to Atticus, which are about the hardest Latin prose, and now we have to start in on the orations.”[6]

In the early twentieth century, Latin, no less than high culture in general, fell by the wayside in the effort to create modern “scientific” doctors.  By the 1920s, medical schools had assumed their modern “corporate” form, providing an education that was standardized and mechanized in the manner of factory production.  “The result of specialization,” Kenneth Ludmerer has observed, “was a crowded, highly structured curriculum in which subjects were taught as a series of isolated disciplines rather than as integrated branches of medicine.”[7]  Absent such integration, the very possibility of a holistic grasp of sick people, enriched by study of the classics, was relinquished.

The elimination of Latin from the premed curriculum made eminently good sense to twentieth-century medical educators.  But it was not only the language that went by the wayside.  Gone as well was familiarity with the broader body of myth, literature, and history to which the language opened up.  Gone, that is, was the kind of training that sustained holistic, perhaps even empathic, doctoring.

When in the fall of 1890 – a year after the opening of Johns Hopkins Hospital – Osler and Welch founded the Johns Hopkins Hospital Historical Club, it was with the explicit understanding that medical history, beginning with the Hippocratic and Galenic writings, was a humanizing building block in the formation of a medical identity.  The first year of monthly meetings was devoted exclusively to Greek medicine, with over half of 15 presentations dealing with Hippocrates.  Osler’s two talks dealt, respectively, with “The Aphorisms of Hippocrates” and “Physic and Physicians as Depicted in Plato.”  Over the next three years, the Club’s focus broadened to biography, with Osler himself presenting essays on seven different American physicians, John Morgan, Thomas Bond, Nathan Smith, and William Beaumont, among them.  His colleagues introduced the club to other medical notables, European and American, and explored topics in the history of the specialties, including the history of trephining, the history of lithotomy in women, and the ancient history of rhinoscopy.[8]

The collective delving into history of medicine that took place within the Hopkins Medical History Club not only broadened the horizons of the participates, residents among them.  It also promoted a comfortable fellowship conducive to patient-centered medicine.  The Hopkins professors and their occasional guests were not only leading lights in their respective specialties, but Compleat Physicians deeply immersed in the humanities. Residents and students who attended the meetings of the Club saw their teachers as engaged scholars; they beheld professors who, during the first several years of meetings, introduced them, inter alia, to “The Royal Touch for Scrofula in England,” “The Medicine of Shakespeare,” “The Plagues and Pestilences of the Old Testament,” and “An Old English Medical Poem by Abraham Cowley.”   Professors familiar with doctor-patient relationships throughout history were the very type of positive role models that contemporary medical educators search for in their efforts to counter a “hidden curriculum” that pulls students away from patient-centered values and into a culture of academic hierarchies, cynical mixed-messages, and commercialism.[9]

Medical history clubs were not uncommon in the early decades of the twentieth century.  The Hopkins Club, along with the New York-based Charaka Club founded in 1899, had staying power.  In 1939, the third meeting of the Hopkins Club, which presented a play adapted by Hopkins’ medical librarian Sanford Larkey from William Bullein’s “A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence” (1564), drew a crowd of 460.  The following year, when the Hopkins Club celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Baltimore alone boasted two other medical history clubs: the Osler Society of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland and the Cordell Society of the University of Maryland.[10]

Although medical history clubs are a thing of the past, we see faint echoes of their milieu in contemporary medical student and resident support groups, some modeled on the Balint groups developed by Michael and Enid Balint at London’s Tavistock Clinic in the 1950s.[11]  All such groups seek to provide a safe space for shared reflection and self-examination in relation to physician-patient relationships.  In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, history clubs filled this space with topics in medical history.  Their meetings broadened the care-giving sensibility of young physicians by exposing them to pain and suffering, to plagues and pestilences, far beyond the misery of everyday rounds.  Medical history and the broadened “medical self” it evokes and nurtures – now there’s a pathway to empathy.


[1] P. E. Stepansky, “Humanitas: Nineteenth-Century Physicians and the Classics,” presented to the Richardson History of Psychiatry Research Seminar, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY, October 3, 2007.

[2] C. Lawrence, “Incommunicable knowledge: science, technology and the clinical art in Britain, 1850-1914,” J. Contemp. Hist., 20:503-520, 1985, quoted at pp. 504-505, 507.

[3] S. Flexner & J. T. Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968 [1941]), pp. 63-65, 419-420; H. Cushing, The Life of Sir William Osler (London: Oxford University Press, 1940), pp. 25, 39, 52.

[4] W. Osler, Aequanimitas, with other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine, 3rd edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1906), pp. 367, 463; L. F. Barker, Time and the Physician (New York: Putnam, 1942), p. 86.

[5] A. W. Davis, Dr. Kelly of Hopkins: Surgeon, Scientist, Christian (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959),  pp. 17, 21.

[6] David Linn Edsall, who, as Dean of Harvard Medical School and of the Harvard School of Public Health during the 1920s, engineered Harvard’s progressive transformation, entered Princeton the same year (1887) Cushing entered Yale.  Edsall came to Princeton “a serious-minded young classicist” intent on a career in the classics. See  J. C. Aub & R. K. Hapgood, Pioneer in Modern Medicine: David Linn Edsall of Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard Medical Alumni Association, 1970), p. 7.  On Cushing and the classics, see  E. H. Thomson, Harvey Cushing: Surgeon, Author, Artist (New York: Schuman, 1950), p. 20.

[7] K. M. Ludmerer, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (New York:  Basic Books, 1985), pp. 256-57, 262.

[8] V. A. McKusick, “The minutes of the Johns Hopkins medical history club, 1890 to 1894,” Bull. Hist. Med., 27:177-181, 1953.

[9] F. W. Hafferty, “Beyond curriculum reform: confronting medicine’s hidden curriculum,” Acad. Med., 73:403-407, 1998;  J. Coulehan, “Today’s professionalism: engaging the mind but not the heart,” Acad. Med., 80:892-898, 2005; P. Haldet & H. F. Stein, “The role of the student-teacher relationship in the formation of physicians: the hidden curriculum as process,” J. Gen. Int. Med., 21(suppl):S16-S20, 2005; S. Weissman, “Faculty empathy and the hidden curriculum” [letter to the editor], Acad. Med., 87:389, 2012.

[10] O. Temkin, “The Johns Hopkins medical history club,” Bull. Hist. Med., 7:809, 1939; W.R.B., “Johns Hopkins medical history club,” BMJ, 1:1036, 1939.

[11] K. M. Markakis, et al., “The path to professionalism: cultivating humanistic values and attitudes in residency training,” Acad. Med., 75:141-150, 2000; M. Hojat, “Ten approaches for enhancing empathy in health and human services cultures,” J. Health Hum. Serv. Adm., 31:412-450, 2009;  K. Treadway & N. Chatterjee, “Into the water – the clinical clerkships,” NEJM, 364:1190-1193, 2011.  On contemporary Balint groups, see A. L. Turner & P. L. Malm, “A preliminary investigation of Balint and non-Balint behavioral medicine training,” Fam. Med., 36:114-117,2004; D. Kjeldmand, et al., “Balint training makes GPs thrive better in their job,” Pat. Educ. Couns., 55:230-235, 2004; K. P. Cataldo, et al., “Association between Balint training and physician empathy and work satisfaction,” Fam. Med., 37:328–31, 2005.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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