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Borderlands: a historian's perspective on medical humanities in the US and the UK
  1. Harold J Cook
  1. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
  1. Correspondence to Harold J Cook, History Department, Box N, Brown University, 79 Brown Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA; halcook7{at}

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Medical Humanities has developed as an important pedagogical ideal, although it is not a research field, at least not yet. Anyone with clinical, administrative, or personal responsibilities for other people is well aware of a duty of care requiring judgement. Judgement is an attribute applying as much to values as to knowledge, an ability to take appropriate decisions attuned to circumstances of person, context and moment. What one knows and has experienced provides a necessary foundation for deciding a course of action. And when patterns repeat themselves again and again, judgements can become routine. But because judgement is in the end about what best course of action to follow on particular occasions for particular people, general rules and universal truths can ever only be important helps, never giving determinative answers about how to act. Put another way, judgement is not about drawing conclusions but deciding what to do. The duty of care requires the practitioner to decide not what is true but what is best, and with the views of those under care taken into consideration, too.1 The complexities and ambiguities of the human condition, then, inform medicine profoundly, and exploring them often goes by the term ‘medical humanities’.

Given that the subject is aimed at forming good judgement rather than informing the content of any particular field of knowledge, the medical humanities can have no unified research programme. Its advocates share an understandable concern about the potential narrowness of medical education and training, which is a special problem for young men and women who have not otherwise been exposed to a breadth of human experience. While this has been felt most keenly in the large university medical schools of the post war USA, the recent amalgamation of medical schools in Britain and the consequent routinisation of education for …

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  • Funding Wellcome Trust.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.