This is a compendium of original critical essays on a wide range of topics written by a diverse group of scholars of what has traditionally been called "medical humanities." The editors argue for a change of name to "health humanities," pointing out that "medical" has a narrow frame of reference - evoking primarily the point of view of physicians and their interaction with patients, as well as the institution of biomedicine. Such a focus may exclude the myriad allied individuals and communities who work with patients and their families. The editors quote Daniel Goldberg, who notes that the health humanities should have the primary goal of "health and human flourishing rather than  . .  the delivery of medical care" (quoted on page 7).

The three editors are innovative contemporary scholar-educators in the field of medical/health humanities. They advocate Megan Boler's "pedagogy of discomfort" (quoted on page 8) and wish to provide students and educators "an opportunity to examine critically the origins and nature of their personal beliefs and values, beliefs and values embedded in the curriculum and the learning environment, as well as institutional policies - all of which intersect" . . and influence quality of care (8). In their own work and in this Reader the editors favor an approach to health humanities education and research that "challenge[s] the hegemony of a biomedicine that contributes to disparities and the discrimination of persons who don't quite fit the codified and naturalized norms of health."

The book is divided into 12 parts, each comprising three or four chapters: Disease and Illness, Disability, Death and Dying, Patient-Professional Relationships, The Body, Gender and Sexuality, Race and Class, Aging, Mental Illness, Spirituality and Religion, Science and Technology, and Health Professions Education. At the end of each section there is "an imaginative or reflective piece" on the topic. A wide range of disciplines is represented, including disability studies, history, bioethics, philosophy, literature, media studies, law, and medicine. Some of the authors are well-known and have been practicing their profession for many years (for example, Arthur Frank, Sander Gilman, Anne Hudson Jones, Martha Montello, John Lantos) while others have entered the field more recently and are gaining increasing attention (for example, Rebecca Garden, Daniel Goldberg, Allan Peterkin, Sayantani DasGupta).

The Reader is well documented: there are footnotes at the end of most chapters, a references section of 50 pages, notes on contributors, and a 72-page index.


For those seeking a comprehensive view of the contemporary field of medical/health humanities and where the field is heading, this Reader is a worthy text. Because of its size, some readers may choose to be selective and prioritize what they will concentrate on. Those interested in commentary on classic "literature and medicine" texts will find new takes on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. The Andromeda Strain is revisited. Films and television series are discussed (for example in chapters 5 and 7). There is a fascinating essay on music and disability that considers the role of music in autism, deafness, and mobility impairment (chapter 6), emphasizing a socio-cultural model of disability rather than a medical model.

I believe the most important and original sections are those that have not been emphasized in other "medical humanities," "literature and medicine," or "narrative medicine" handbooks and texts. I refer to the sections on disability, the body, race and class, and health professions education. Add to those Rebecca Garden's chapter, "Social Studies: The Humanities, Narrative, and the Social Context of the Patient-Professional Relationship" (chapter 12), Susan Squier's "Comics in the Health Humanities: A New Approach to Sex and Gender Education" (chapter 22), "Brad Lewis's "Narrating Our Sadness, with a Little Help from the Humanities" (chapter 31), and Tod Chambers' "Rites of Bioethics" (chapter 35). These sections bring into the discussion insights from disability studies, race and gender studies, performance criticism, and considerations of social justice that are rarely treated in medical humanities contexts or in medical training, but in my opinion are crucial as our society becomes increasingly diverse and older, and health disparities remain a troubling problem.


Rutgers University Press

Place Published

New Brunswick, New Jersey and London




Therese Jones, Delese Wear, and Lester D. Friedman

Page Count