A Medical Doctor’s Advocacy of the Humanities

Richard Smith, a British medical doctor who was formerly head of UnitedHealth Europe and editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), makes a case in the BMJ Blogs for “Medicine’s need for the humanities.” He reflects:

Richard SmithPerhaps the most urgent problem in health care is to change attitudes to dying, and here, I suggest, the humanities have far more to offer than medicine. Medicine is good on the statistics of dying and what we die of but poor on how to contemplate death. If we want to think more deeply about death then we need to study not medical textbooks but Montaigne, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Illich, Saramego, and Julian Barnes. Indeed, perhaps the best book written recently on death and dying by a doctor—that by Iona Heath—is composed largely of quotes by great thinkers in the humanities.

We also need philosophers to help us think deeply and correctly about assisted suicide, something that I’m sure will rise higher and higher on the agenda in the next 20 years.

More and more of life’s inevitable processes and difficulties—birth, sexuality, ageing, unhappiness, tiredness, and loneliness —are being medicalised, and we are growing the budget of health care to tackle them. But medicine cannot solve these problems, and again the humanities can help. (Read his full statement.)

In a separate post, Smith also reports on a recent meeting at the London School of Economics where participants defended the value of the humanities in the context of the budget “cuts” in the U. K. Among other participants was Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society. Smith reports:

A successful university needs the humanities as much as it needs science argued Lord Rees,… If Britain allows the humanities to wither our universities will wither as well. Questioning the coalitions’ policy on higher education, he pointed out that “If a plane is overweight you don’t ditch the engines.” He argued as well that the obsession with impact was misguided. A committee of the research councils is wholly ill equipped to decide which research will have impact. (Read Smith’s full report of this meeting.)

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