The study of literature is arguably as connected to certain specialties of medicine as is the study of, say, organic chemistry, though this statement may be controversial to some. Before bringing up the interpretive side of medicine and the importance of listening for the gaps or central features of a patient's story, I must admit that this vision goes against that of one of my literary idols, Anton Chekhov. A Russian physician and writer, Chekhov famously said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” From his perspective, medicine and literature were two separate entities.
Such a philosophy guides the academic experience of Harvard undergraduates who are interested in this intersection. They have the option of concentrating in fields such as English, Comparative Literature, Folklore and Mythology, or Classics while pursuing premedical coursework as electives, or of choosing a science concentration and taking literature classes on the side. I am an English concentrator and premedical student myself, and I am grateful for the opportunity to explore literature's connection to medicine while in college. This path is not as logistically difficult during one's undergraduate years as it may initially seem to be, and, perhaps surprisingly to some, it allows the student to develop literary skills that directly relate to medical practice.
The main requirement of this undergraduate path is balance. Jarrod R. Wetzel-Brown ’17 is an English concentrator who is finishing up his last two premedical requirements this year. "My academic path is a good balance for me. It really tests my mind in many ways that individual disciplines cannot truly do,” he says. I, too, have found that transitioning between humanities coursework and science assignments, between a response paper on the nuances of form in the novel “All the Pretty Horses” and a problem set on thermodynamics, allows me to notice broader connections between disciplines, such as the centrality of instability to both of these topics. A broad scope can be personally enriching and exciting. As Wetzell-Brown describes, “I get to taste what is real and what is romantic. I get to experience what is obvious and what is fantastic.”
Logistically, students also find balance. Tarina Quraishi ’14, a former editorial writer for the Crimson who graduated with a degree in English and is currently pursuing a career in medicine, describes the remarkable organizational ease that an English concentrator completing premed requirements experiences. “Having different formats of assignments makes this path a surprisingly good balance in terms of the workload,” she says. For instance, combining classes with weekly problem sets and no final exams with seminars which culminate in particularly long final papers provides one with the time to deeply investigate the literary texts as well as the scientific concepts. And such a schedule is not as difficult to plan as it may seem, particularly because Harvard departments are often especially helpful in terms of advising.
The Harvard English curriculum fosters skills that are applicable to clinical research and interpreting patients' narratives. As Quraishi explains, “The English department is dedicated to creative writing...as well as critique—writing essays, doing observational studies, interpreting descriptions and data.” She also describes how her English thesis was a particularly helpful experience in preparing her for the type of work she’s doing now. “I think that English research experience translates particularly well into medicine because you have a little bit more independence. You are producing your own work and your own ideas, and there's no protocol for that.” Students learn lessons about organizing and interpreting copious amounts of data and practice interpreting stories—which eventually they may hear from patients.
In this context, one can return to Chekhov's quote with a new perspective. After claiming that “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress,” Chekov then stated “Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.” Neither medicine nor literature need become neglected if one engages in both English and premedical courses—students who pursue this academic path actually have much to gain.