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Innovation Through Tradition: Rediscovering the “Humanist” in the Medical Humanities


Throughout its fifty-year history, the role of the medical humanist and even the name “medical humanities” has remained raw, dynamic and contested. What do we mean when we call ourselves “humanists” and our practice “medical humanities?” To address these questions, we turn to the concept of origin narratives. After explaining the value of these stories, we focus on one particularly rich origin narrative of the medical humanities by telling the story of how a group of educators, ethicists, and scholars struggling to define their relatively new field rediscovered the studia humanitatis, a Renaissance curriculum for learning and teaching. Our origin narrative is composed of two intertwined stories—the history of the studia humanitatis itself and the story of the scholars who rediscovered it. We argue that as an origin narrative the studia humanitatis grounds the medical humanities as both an engaged moral practice and pedagogical project. In the latter part of the paper, we use this origin narrative to show how medical humanists working in translational science can use their understanding of their historical roots to do meaningful work in the world.

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A portion of this work was conducted with the support of the Institute for Translational Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch, supported in part by a Clinical and Translational Science Award (UL1TR000071) from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Julie Kutac.

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Kutac, J., Osipov, R. & Childress, A. Innovation Through Tradition: Rediscovering the “Humanist” in the Medical Humanities. J Med Humanit 37, 371–387 (2016).

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  • Medical humanities
  • Origin narrative
  • Renaissance humanism
  • Rhetoric
  • Translational science
  • History of medicine