Emory Report

Feb. 8, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 19

Medical school elective combines literature and science

Medical students rarely get to listen to a lecture while sitting in the green grass of Lullwater and enjoying the first breezes of a Georgia spring, but that's just what a handful of public health students will do this semester in a new course that will bridge the two halves of their brains.

The brainchild of Howard Frumkin, associate professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, "Green Books, White Coats: The Literature of the Environment and Health" is in the middle of its debut right now. Team-taught with former English professor Melissa Walker, a specialist in environmental literature, the course uses as "texts" a handful of literary works, both fiction and nonfiction, that examine mankind's relationship with the environment. It offers a unique chance to "blend perspectives"--not only for the students, but for the instructors, as well.

"I try to think broadly in my work, but we all get caught in our own paradigms," Frumkin said. "I tend to have a scientific approach, animated by a commitment to public health advocacy, but I probably have blinders on more than I realize. The spiritual dimensions, the literary dimensions, the aesthetic dimensions--these are areas where I have a lot to learn."

Among the works being used are Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action and Gretel Ehrlich's A Match to the Heart. While Frumkin guides the students' understanding of the scientific problems and issues, Walker helps them appreciate the books' literary value. "What I try to bring to something like Silent Spring is, 'Where is the artfulness of this book?'" Walker said. "How is it functioning beyond scientific information? We're using this kind of material to introduce students to difficult problems they're going to have to deal with as physicians and ways of approaching them through the way they are with their patients."

Frumkin said the students read each book with four basic questions in mind:

  • How does the environment affect health?
  • What can medicine learn from environmentalism?
  • What has medicine contributed to environmentalism?
  • What do we do with uncertainty?

Each of these questions could be addressed in a more traditional medical course, but using literary works allows students to approach the questions from a different perspective-indeed, from several different perspectives, since the attitude changes with each book, Frumkin said. "Reading Silent Spring conveys a great appreciation for the integrity of ecosystems and a deeply moral message about human beings' contaminating effect on those ecosystems," he said. "These dimensions, the depth of the moral message, the sheer beauty of Carson's writing, are difficult if not impossible to convey in a textbook."

And, Frumkin pointed out, the course offers another advantage not always forthcoming from traditional textbooks: good writing. "Medical students, like most thoughtful, educated people, love to read," he said. "Most scientific textbooks are unbearable to read, so the students appreciate the opportunity to enjoy fine writing. Lots of good information can be conveyed through good writing that we typically convey through bad writing."

The class meets weekly in the Grace Crum Rollins Building but will hold classes in Lullwater when weather permits. There are also extracurricular excursions: the class of six, joined by some other medical students, went to hear E.O. Wilson (author of Biophilia, another of the books covered) speak recently at Glenn Auditorium and then met for discussion and coffee at Walker's home. They will also go see the recent movie version of A Civil Action together.

Both Frumkin and Walker agree the course is developing wonderfully, and Walker said the experience of teaching literature to medical students is her "dream class." "They're wonderful," she said of the students. "When you use literature that deals not only with the life and death of individual humans and that which threatens the life and death of individual humans, but with all of life, there's an intensity that's really rare in college classes. And that's what we're experiencing."

Frumkin said he's not aware of any other medical school in the country offering a similar course and, even though he's taught many courses that range across disciplines, the two covered in this course are the most disparate he's ever combined in a single offering. "This is exactly what I understand by 'interdisciplinary teaching' at Emory," he said.

In the future, Frumkin would not only like to the course continue to be offered as a medical school elective but expanded and offered to other Emory students. "In particular, now that we have a Department of Environmental Studies, this might be an ideal course to offer to its undergraduates who are interested in human health, such as pre-meds."

--Michael Terrazas

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