An Introduction to Medical Humanities

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An Introduction to Medical Humanities

It can be difficult at times to understand what medical terms and practices mean. Our perceptions of health or lack of it, treatments, diseases and conditions can be influenced by so many factors. A way that people have tried to understand these issues and to give meaning to them is through engagement with the arts and humanities.  The intersection of medicine with the arts and humanities has been a part of medical education for a long time.

If we take the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632)  which is one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings we can see many things happening.  In this picture we see members of the Dutch Surgeon’s Guild being instructed in anatomy which is useful to a range of medical education professionals.  The illustration of Anatomy is not something people would quickly associate with an art subject but here we can see that the art form is the medium Rembrandt chose to capture a medical practice and bring it to life as a piece of art, rather than just a medical instruction tool. The painting tells a story, it allows the viewer to create a story all in the understanding of how do we learn about the anatomy of the human form?

Medical Humanities represents the intersection between Arts and the Humanities.  It is an attempt to give meaning and insight into how people understand and relate to areas of medicine and health with the use and support humanities subjects. These representations help to give meaning and clarity to medical and health practitioners, researchers and ordinary people. This type of representation has existed throughout time, in the forms of art work, music, literature, stories, poetry, philosophy, history, folklore and more recently in popular culture.


The Literature in the subject area of Medical Humanities crosses many domains. In the first instance, there are the subject areas of Medicine, including but not limited to Medical History, Medical Archives, Medical Education, Medical Art (Drawings, Sculpting), Medical Literature, Medical Music, and Medical Philosophy. The Humanities is another broad subject area/ subject headings and these include; Anthropology, Classics, History, Geography, Linguistics and languages, Law and politics, Literature, Performing arts, Philosophy, Religion, and the Visual arts.

Anthony Moore,  a surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia is credited with being the first person to  use the term “Medical Humanities” in 1976.  In his paper Medical Humanities:  An aid to Ethical Discussions He described his approach to using literature in teaching undergraduate medical students at the University of Melbourne. as a way of understanding the human experience of health and also as a way of exploring ethical issues in clinical practice (Moore, 1976).

While biomedicine focusses on objective science, the medical humanities are distinguished by their concern with recording and interpreting the human experiences of illness, disability and medical intervention.  Students experience the medical humanities at the most basic level whenever they attend to patient’s stories rather than simply extracting medically relevant information, and whenever they themselves reflect on, and give expression to, their own and others experiences of health illness and care giving.

Medical Humanities is a significant part of Medical Education & Research, but it also touches on so many other areas.  Issues of a multidisciplinary approach to Medicine, Medical Education, Art, Humanities and information technology for the delivery and contextualization of information and ethics features in a range of curriculum.

For the individual person the aspects of medical humanities are also tangible. Stories and storytelling have always been a medium to help us understand life, health and death.  It is the connection with words, pictures and imagination that are our story of all aspects of life. So while many stories have not been created with the intention of being classed in the medical humanities genre their content and approach which helps to provide understanding, to give support and to provide comfort allows them to be included into this growing suite of literature that we can access when we need them.

One such book is The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. The Red This is a beautifully illustrated book that is based on images inspired by the experience of depression The main character is a lonely red headed girl. A red leaf from a red tree follows the girl through her day; it states how she feels and depicts her worries. Each panel of the book has a small red leaf illustrated.


The idea of using art or humanities to explain a life experience, and to understand a life story is something that can resonate with all of us.

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