Humanities and Medicine

Humanities and Medicine


“Happy is he who has the pure truth in him.

He will regret no sacrifice that keeps it.”  Goethe, Faust



In conjunction with CMDA in Pittsburgh, and through affiliation with various teaching hospitals, we have attempted to inspire a love of literature in students and fellow physicians and enable them to see its study as relevant to their practice and life.  We seek to expand our own moral imaginations through the study of great literature.  Our association with Augustine College has inspired this endeavor.


This program has worked in two formats based on the length of readings and the group being addressed.  A book club can meet three or four times a year and read a novel and/or essays produced by one author.  This requires reading about 200 pages for each session and requires considerable commitment.  The program works with motivated physicians in practice and students in light rotations or over the summer.


The second format we have tried is more of a journal club approach. We meet monthly for an afternoon conference. The readings are typically essays or short stories of 20-30 pages in length.  These sessions usually last one hour. Listed below are some topics and sources we have used.



Book Club


Wendell Berry

 Life is a Miracle



Berry is an agrarian Southerner. Life is a Miracle is an apology for authentic humanism in reaction to E.O. Wilson’s book of reductionist, materialist bilge called Consilience.  Fidelity is a short story of medicine, death, and community.


Annie Dillard

 Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek

Holy the Firm


Both of these works are theodicies, justifying God’s ways in the face of the existence of evil.  Dillard is a polymath, mastering a wide range of interests and knowledge.  The communion chapter at the end of Holy the Firm is excellent.



Marilynne Robinson


The Death of Adam


Gilead is the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, a touching and theologically astute piece. The Death of Adam contains numerous essays that support and amplify themes developed artistically in Gilead.


Philosophy vs. Science

 Boethius  The Consolation of Philosophy

Bacon                        The New Atlantis


Both of these writers were imperfect Christians (Francis Bacon the more imperfect) who employed two different approaches to the problem of suffering, one philosophical and the other scientific.


Flannery O’ Connor

 The Revelation

The Enduring Chill

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Everything That Rises Must Converge

The Peeler


O’Connor died young of lupus nephritis. Her short stories are deeply Christian.  The possibility of redemptive suffering, the comprehensive problem of sin, and the presence and action of the hidden God are themes that this genius of literature develops.





This story explores the difficulty of the resentful, suffering patient in the context of the Trojan War.  It is the basis of the Philoctetes Project at Cornell University Medical School.


Leo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilyich


This is a novella of redemption in the face of a world indifferent to the sufferer’s need for it.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


An exploration of the resilience of the human spirit facing absurd, unimaginable privation. The Solzhenitsyn reader provides additional supplemental material.



Journal Club


Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark

Earth’s Holocaust


Hawthorne’s short stories explore the limits of scientific and progressive thinking.


Wendell Berry

 The Work of Local Culture


In this essay from the book What Are People For, Berry explores the consequences of the breakdown of local culture, especially in matters of mutual trust.


Anton Chekhov

 A Doctor’s Visit

The Doctor


Chekhov, himself a physician, writes densely-packed short stories addressing situations that  physicians commonly encounter.


Joseph Pieper

 Tradition: Its Sense and Its Aspiration


An essay by the German Catholic scholar examines where tradition came from and where it is going.  Paired with a study of the Hippocratic Oath, this can be a provocative study.




A study of the human body in art through the centuries (prepared with the assistance of Prof. Ed Tingley of Augustine College).  See Downloads  section for PowerPoint presentation. The following articles are helpful to guide the discussion:


Body and Soul by Michael J. Lewis

Dead Body Porn by Thomas S. Hibbs

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