In a Word

I have always been interested in definitions. What frequently comes to mind is what Aristotle said, “A definition is a phrase signifying a things essence.”


So, when thinking about the term medical humanism, I went to a dictionary. This is what I found.


The word medical is “an adjective relating to the science of medicine, or to the treatment of illness and injuries relating to conditions requiring medical but not surgical treatment.”


The word humanism is “a noun which signifies a doctrine or mode of thought that gives highest importance to human dignity, values, potentials, and interest of each individual, which is of the utmost importance in caring for the sick.”


Medical humanism in the practice of medicine has had uneasy footing. At presentations to medical professionals over the years, I’ve quoted Dr. Lewis Thomas, a physician and past president of Memorial Sloan Kettering. He described the gulf between scientists and humanists as the “two cultures” controversy. “At one edge” he writes, “the humanists are set up as all knowing and wanting to know very little about science. On the other side, scientists are served up as a bright illiterate lot, well read in nothing but science.”


Dr. Thomas went on to say that there can be “a middle ground to stand on, a shared common earth between the feet of all the humanists and all the scientists, a shared view of the world. It is called bewilderment.”


I recognized that my role of medical humanist provided a bridge between the “two cultures.” I’m not sure I had bewilderment in mind but I like the word. So, I checked the definition to learn that bewilderment is “a state of being confused and puzzled…but it goes beyond that—it implies a state of complete mystification…utterly baffled by the situation at hand.”


When thinking about what Dr. Thomas had in mind with bewilderment being a “shared common earth,” I can see where my role in documenting the patient’s perspective of illness helped forge a meeting place between those lodged in the science of medicine and those feeling unsteady ground beneath their feet in experiencing the human side of being seriously ill. Like Dr. Thomas, I have found that words can help us reach common ground and a way forward.

One Comment

  1. dorothy zeide

    Great blog

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