Poetry & Medicine


Editor's note: Poetry & Medicine have a long history of connectivity (after all, William Carlos Williams was a physician!) Here at the Poetry Center, we've been working closely to bridge the fields of art and medicine by hosting classes for future doctors in our building. Across the country, the medical humanities are becoming more and more valued. Below is an account from Pam Pierce, a librarian in Oregon, who is also helping facilitate this work where she lives.

Reading poetry about syphilis isn’t normally thought of as part of med school, but at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, students have that chance. OHSU is Oregon’s only academic health center and does not house humanities programs like comprehensive state universities. However, students participating in School of Medicine intersessions focused on themes like cancer, infection, and pain have the opportunity to read poems, short stories, view film clips, and look at paintings that relate to the theme. Students then write their own reflective piece using personal experience and interactions with patients. The intersessions give students a space to reflect on their experiences and think about changes to their practice they might be able to make going forward. Students can choose when they take intersessions over the course of their clinical rotations.

In this spring’s infection intersession, students used two poems from Adalbert Bettman’s How it Happened (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1931). Bettman was one of Oregon’s first plastic surgeons and also wrote poetry on a variety of medical topics. Syphilis was one of his favorite subjects. Bettman’s syphilis poems are written from the perspective of patients and emphasize sentimental social and family themes. The students looked at “James Millard” and “Mrs. Birdie Millard.” Birdie married James as a June bride, but in September she noticed a rash on her body. After losing two babies, she realizes she has syphilis and wishes she could have received treatment earlier. The poem from the perspective of James lets the reader know that he knew in April what was the matter, “But I had been taught that/What one did not know/Would not hurt them.”

Students responded to the poems with frustration at James and wishing that Birdie’s life would have been different. The discussion on these poems also connected to why syphilis is on the rise in Oregon; reasons connected to public health infrastructure, technology, and a lack of fear of STDs. Poetry enabled students to connect the past and present together. 

Pam Pierce is the Repository Librarian at OHSU.