Why Doctors Need the Humanities

Humanities6 MIN READ

Wrapping up a three-year research collaborative on the medical humanities through Colby’s Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab

Students take notes while viewing various artworks during their Medicine and Visual Culture course taught by Tanya Sheehan, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art. The study of medical humanities at Colby is burgeoning, thanks to a three-year faculty research collaborative under Colby's Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab, or PHIL.
By Kayla Voigt '14Photography by Ashley L. Conti
May 15, 2024

Look at any pre-health requirement list and you’ll see courseloads heavy on the sciences: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and so on. While intensive study in these disciplines is essential to understanding the mechanics of medicine—how the four chambers of a heart beat, or why the left and right brain process information differently—they leave out the most important part of a doctor’s day-to-day life: interacting with patients.

Colby’s inaugural Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab (PHIL, for short) broadens the typical approach to medicine through an interdisciplinary lens. Fourteen faculty members in fields like art history, anthropology, history, and classics have spent the last three years as part of a research collaborative in the medical humanities. The goal? Bringing the humanities and sciences in conversation with one another to spotlight the human experience of health.

“At an institution like Colby that has a large number of prehealth students and science majors, the medical humanities is crucial to their studies, and they’re telling us they want more,” said Tanya Sheehan, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art and principal investigator of the PHIL. “You can’t study medicine without understanding culture, identity, history, and social context. I teach Medicine and Visual Culture, and a lot of students in that class are pre-health students taking their very first art history class.”

A faculty collaborative

Sheehan, alongside Jay Sibara, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, built a program to support faculty research and on-campus events, culminating in a multi-day conference on campus this past March. 

“We’ve been able to fund a number of research projects for faculty, from scholarly workshops to publication development, and organized a medical humanities colloquium to share progress on that research,” said Sheehan. “We wanted to build a community around the medical humanities here at Colby, and that’s what we did.”

Professor standing in front of students discussing artwork on the wall beside her.
Tanya Sheehan, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jette, Professor of Art, talks with students in the Landay Teaching Gallery in the Colby Museum. For many students, her course Medicine and Visual Culture is the first art history course they’ve taken.

Later this spring, the Margaret T. McFadden Fund for Humanistic Inquiry committee, which funds the PHIL, will choose a new theme—but the connections launched by the lab reverberate across campus, from the Diamond Building to the Davis Science Center. 

“It’s been an incredibly enriching experience,” said Associate Professor of Global Studies Nadia El-Shaarawi. “Tanya and Jay have done amazing work helping us develop our research and create a community across campus of people working on health in different ways. You have to learn constantly to be a good teacher, and I feel like this has given us the opportunity to deepen our own understanding and learning so we can bring that back to our students.”

Making premed more than med

Students, many of them on the pre-health track, come to Colby excited to learn about all aspects of medicine. “A lot of premed students are taking STEM classes that prepare them for med school, but they’re also super interested in the social and political dimensions of medicine,” said El-Shaarawi, who teaches a popular public health course. “What I love about a course like public health is that it brings in plenty of students from across campus, which opens up great conversations.”

These students have had a chance to broaden their understanding of what makes a great health care provider by attending PHIL events and meeting other students and faculty across campus who are approaching medicine from many perspectives. 

Aislinn Mershon ’25, a global studies and French double major on the pre-health track, chose to concentrate in public health to ground her scientific studies in real-world issues. “I firmly believe that focusing on just medicine won’t allow for equitable access to care,” said Mershon. “It’s important to look at the history that underpins why certain services look the way they do, why we conduct research the way we do, and what systemic forces influence how care is administered. As a future health care professional, I want to be able to connect with my patients and provide the best possible care I can. The medical humanities gives you the opportunity to learn more than just medicine.”

Four people sitting in comfortable chairs chatting and smiling.
(from left) Tanya Sheehan, Hermann Haller, president and professor at MDI Biological Laboratory, Wendy Miller, cofounder of Create Therapy Institute, and Amanda Lilleston, assistant professor of art, discuss art and medicine during the Keywords in Critical Medical Humanities conference held at Colby in March 2024. (Photo courtesy of Sari Altschuler)

Combining scientific research with social context is exactly why Gefen Nusinov ’25 declared the College’s first independent medical humanities major to pair with her biology major. “I came to a liberal arts institution for a reason. I’m super interested in the STEM side of medicine, but I wanted to incorporate the humanities into it as well. I think it’s super important to have context for whatever field you’re going into, which is why I’ve taken courses in anthropology, global studies, and history,” said Nusinov.

This interdisciplinary approach to a pre-professional track sparks a deeper understanding than a traditional undergraduate experience. “You need both to be successful,” said Nusinov. “Without understanding the pathways and systems in the body, you can’t be able to make the right medical decisions. For example, I’m taking genetics right now, and, of course, it’s important to know how to do the experiments and how it all works. But it also brings up plenty of ethical questions related to the humanities, which is what I love about a liberal arts education.”

Medical humanities are here to stay

The past three years built momentum around the medical humanities on campus, and they’re just getting started. “The legacy of the PHIL is more robust engagement in this field across the College, in courses, and among faculty and other institutional partnerships. That was always our intention, and it’s rewarding to see it come to fruition,” said Sheehan.

While the next PHIL starts September 2025, the current PHIL initiative will continue on a smaller scale in 2024-25 because of its success in bringing together faculty and students across the College, and the medical humanities will remain an exciting interdisciplinary effort on campus.  “There’s so much excitement around these medical humanities initiatives on campus and in this community,” said El-Shaarawi. “I’m excited to see where we take it next and what the next theme for the PHIL will be.”

Museum curator pointing at a piece of artwork while students look on and listen.
Sarah Humphreville, Lunder Curator of American Art, shows students pieces of artwork in the Landay Teaching Gallery in the Colby Museum.

The Medical Humanities Across Campus

Students interested in the medical humanities have options in a wide variety of disciplines for the 2024-25 academic year, including:

  • Ancient Medicine (Classics)
  • Histories of Assisted Reproductive Technology (History)
  • Medicine, Religion, and Bioethics (Anthropology)
  • Vegan Studies: Animals, Politics, Environment, and Health (Philosophy)
  • Pollution and Human Health (Environmental Studies)
  • Medicine and Visual Culture (Art)