Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Medical Humanities

One of the joys of working in the archives is finding a moment of Dartmouth history that just blows your mind. The Dartmouth Medical School (now the Geisel School of Medicine) stopped granting degrees early in the 20th century because they feared they were about to lose their accreditation. The 1910 Flexner Report doomed most rural medical schools because it argued that students in rural areas could not be exposed to the variety of cases necessary for a well-rounded medical education. But, by 1960, medical training had changed, and Dartmouth was again poised to grant medical degrees.

To celebrate the re-establishment of a fully operational medical school, Dartmouth hosted a three-day convocation on "The Great Issues of Conscience in Modern Medicine." For such an event, you would expect a series of congratulatory, optimistic and forward-looking speeches by leaders in the medical community. But Dartmouth took a very different path: among the speakers invited were C. P. Snow and Aldus Huxley. Just the year before, scientist and novelist C. P. Snow had shaken the academic world with his famous "Two Cultures" talk at Cambridge. He outlined a course of history that had driven a wedge between the sciences and the humanities and left the two areas of intellectual pursuit incapable of communicating even on a basic level. This divide, he charged, had dangerous consequences for the future of civilization.

His dire warnings paled next to the damning critique of science and medicine offered up in Aldus Huxley's Brave New World. In a tragic dystopian future, medicine was simply a tool in the hands of a totalitarian state stripped of any humanity. Not only that, but Huxley was also gaining new fame for his explorations into hallucinogenic drugs.

These are the people you invite to celebrate the grand reopening of the medical school? A scholar who believed the entire system of knowledge generation was broken and a mescaline eating novelist who foresaw a joyless future predicated on eugenics? Wow, that is pretty cool.

To see the proceedings of the convocation, ask for D. C. Hist R111 .D3 1960.

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