What history can teach us about medicine: A Q&A with a Stanford medical student

Photo by Shivam Verma

When I think of history, I think of the famous quote: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is often brought up in reference to politics, but what role does history play in science and medicine? To learn more, I spoke with Julie Barzilay, a second-year medical student at Stanford who has studied the history of science.

How did you first become interested in the philosophy and history of science?

“As an undergraduate at Harvard, I took an incredible course on the history of Darwin and evolutionary theory that introduced me to the world of history and philosophy of science. It was fascinating and powerful to think about scientific knowledge as something that was created by humans in particular contexts and as something that was constantly being evaluated and re-imagined. I was especially drawn to the history and philosophy of medicine, where complex issues of identity, power, stigma, hope, fear and biopsychosocial dynamics all seemed to intersect. Once I began thinking like a historian, I could never see science and medicine the same way again — and I think that is a very good thing.”

How can this enrich the everyday practice of science and medicine?

“All knowledge has a history. Analyzing the ways that humans constantly create and revise their understanding of scientific processes makes us more innovative and critical when it comes to challenging assumptions in our fields. I also believe that thinking historically and sociologically builds empathy. Sociologists, historians, philosophers and anthropologists of science have made us think hard about concepts like the power dynamics in the doctor-patient relationship, or how a patient’s identity changes when given a diagnosis. And thinking about medicine in these terms adds so much depth to the care a physician can give a patient.”

What motivates you to still pursue this interest as a busy medical student?

“I think history is incredibly colorful, fun and important. I am also curious about the history of the profession I’m joining, and often find the questions that excite me the most live at the intersection of history, ethics and sociology of medicine.

I want to share these frameworks and passions with my peers. This is what motivated me to develop the upcoming lunch series on the history of science and medicine, which I created with the support of the Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration, particularly Audrey Shafer, MD, and my advisor for this course Laurel Braitman, PhD. The class will introduce students to an array of talented historians, sociologists, anthropologists and bioethicists at Stanford as we rotate through a new speaker each Thursday at 12:30 pm. I hope the speakers inspire students to think historically and ask tough questions about our assumptions in all scientific fields.”

What are your career plans?

“After completing my MPhil in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge and finishing my premed courses in a post-baccalaureate program at Johns Hopkins University, I worked at ABC News as a production associate in their medical unit in New York. I love communicating about health and medicine, and hope to integrate health communication into my career one day. In terms of clinical practice, I am most interested in pediatrics, but am open to exploring other fields during my upcoming clerkships. I hope to teach, write and practice, in some combination.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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