Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed March 26, 1998
Contact: Carol Cruzan Morton

"Medicine and the Masque of Science"

Kathryn Montgomery Hunter to deliver annual Harriet W. Sheridan Lecture

Physicians must move beyond the style of Sherlock Holmes to find better ways to diagnose and treat medical mysteries, says Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, this year's Harriet W. Sheridan Literature and Medicine lecturer. Hunter's presentation, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, 1998, in the Salomon Center, is open to the public at no charge.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- To treat patients' conditions better, doctors need to expand their "who done it" approach to solving medical mysteries, says Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, the 1998 Sheridan lecturer at Brown University. Hunter will deliver the Harriet W. Sheridan Lecture in Literature and Medicine at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, in the Salomon Center for Teaching, Room 001. Her address is titled "Medicine and the Masque of Science."

In the old detective metaphor, the job is over when the crime is solved. These days, with chronic illnesses becoming a large part of medical practice, doctors need to broaden their case histories to include more about the lives from which their patients come and to which, well or ill, they must return.

"The diagnostic skills of Sherlock Holmes are not outdated," says Hunter, professor of medicine, medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. "Holmes need only make fuller use of Watson's awareness that the lives of those who consult them are far more richly detailed than their misfortune suggests."

When it comes to caring for patients, medicine relies more on the art of story telling than on science, says Hunter, author of the book, Doctors' Stories: The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1991). In all of literature, medicine most closely resembles detective stories, she says, which arose about the same time as early advances in human biology were helping the scientific physician to identify disease and accurately describe its workings in the body. Just as Sherlock Holmes retells the victim's story and broods on physical evidence to reconstruct and solve the crime, a doctor reinterprets a patient's story and scrutinizes test results to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment.

The story telling tradition is how medical professors train scientifically savvy students to be clinically competent doctors, Montgomery says. In the midst of the uncertainty of each new case, medical narratives provide the structure for physicians to learn and teach, to record familiar maladies, and to investigate and report unfamiliar ones. A better understanding and use of narrative will help improve medical discourse for both doctor and patient, she says.

The Sheridan Lectureship was established six years ago, when the Brown literature professor and dean of the College emeritus died of cancer, to preserve and continue her interest in the interdisciplinary studies of doctors, doctoring, illness and healing in literature. "A major goal is to underscore the importance of listening to different voices and perspectives, so that together - as patients, friends, family, doctors and caregivers - we can maximize human dignity and options in the face of illness," says Dr. Lynn Epstein, associate dean of medicine at Brown University.