Finding Art in Medicine

Second Arts Event to be Held Feb. 28

“Illness is the night-side of life,” wrote author Susan Sontag, “a more onerous citizenship” that we all eventually must possess.  Healers, however, shuttle between the worlds of illness and health daily although they may rarely have the opportunity to reflect on illness itself, in part because it consumes so much of their professional life.

A new group calling itself Arts&Humanities@HMS, working in collaboration with the Ackerman Program on Medicine and Culture, offers members of the Harvard Medical School community a way to explore the more personal aspects of illness and the healing power of the arts for patient and provider alike.

Panel participants, from left: Lisa Wong MD (MGH), violinist; Samyukta Mullangi (MS III), writer; Linda H. Davis, author

Founded by a core set of faculty members, staff and students who believe that the arts and humanities play an essential but often overlooked role in medicine, the group organized an evening program of music prose and poetry last October and will host another this week on Feb. 28.

Illness into art

The diverse group of HMS faculty members, students and staff who gathered in the Carl W. Walter Amphitheater last fall for “Imagining Illness: An Evening of Art, Literature and Music,” included
Rafael Campo, associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who read a selection of his poetry that recalled his personal experiences of pain and healing. 

Campo used poetry to illuminate his experiences both as a young physician and as a member of the gay community during the early years of the AIDS crisis,. In another poem about September 11, his evocative imagery reinforced the role the arts played in helping Americans cope with memories of collective and personal trauma.

Medical students Samyukta Mullangi ‘14, Morgan Prust ‘15 and Mounica Vallurupalli ‘14 read from a series of biographical sketches of patients, each created during the Mentored Clinical Casebook elective course.

Through their projects, these students attempted to answer a daunting question: behind the johnnies, CT scans and lists of medications, who are the individuals who endure the illnesses that doctors try to treat?

To find the answer, each student followed one patient for a year, recording the profound impact that students and patients have on one another. 

Biographer Linda Davis read passages from a personal essay published in the spring 2012 medicine issue of Granta Magazine. Davis, writing from both a patient’s and caregiver’s point of view, told of her fight against lymphoma as it intertwined with her life as the mother of an adult autistic son, and how her illness affected her relationship with her son.

Between readings, Lisa Wong, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, president of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra and author of the recently released book “From Scales to Scalpels,” played Bach string trios with violinist Sherman Jia ’12 and cellist Nick Bodnar ‘15.  Outside the auditorium, a slide show of art by HMS students Aleks Olszewski ‘15 and Pranoti Hiremath ‘15, along with images from Granta’s medicine issue, provided visual portraits of illness and healing. 

A panel discussion brought medical students and physicians together to discuss how the arts and humanities contribute to their lives in medicine, and to look at how their medical experiences inspire creativity.

Suzanne Koven, assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the Boston Globe column “In Practice,” and David Jones, the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine at HMS, guided the evening.

Creating an arts community

HMS students and faculty have many opportunities to create and observe the arts, including SMArt (the student art group), the student writers’ group, the student Chamber Music Society, rotating art displays in the medical school’s corridors, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, ArtsFirst, the Countway Library exhibits and programs and the Mass Humanities literature and medicine program in place at several Harvard hospitals.

“Training the Eye,” an elective course taught by Joel Katz, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, brings students to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to practice observation and clinical reasoning skills.

Arts&Humanities@HMS aims to promote the role of the humanities in medical education, clinical care and research. A recent survey of the HMS community assessed the level of interest in the role of art, literature, music and theatre in medical education and patient care. 

After obtaining IRB approval, the survey was sent out to 13,512 faculty, trainees and students. Preliminary student responses were presented at the Harvard Academy Medical Education Day and showed that 72 percent of students who responded participate in the arts and 69 percent would support a formal program to integrate the arts into the medical school curriculum.

Evaluation of the faculty responses is underway along with an effort to create working groups to continue momentum and create a robust program. The group hopes to create an arts website and other resources for faculty and students.

Play it again

Arts & Humanities@HMS will present a second program for Harvard undergraduates, “Write, Cure, Play: Bringing Literature and Music to a Medical Career,” on Feb. 28, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at the Kirkland House Junior Common Room in Cambridge.

The program will be hosted by Jones and Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Diana Sorensen, who is also the James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and a Professor of Comparative Literature.

The event will bring students and physicians together to discuss how the arts and humanities contribute to their lives in medicine, and on how medical experiences inspire creativity. Those interested in attending may RSVP to Meredith Bircher (

For more information about Arts&Humanities@HMS, or to get involved, contact Carol Benoit (