“First do no harm”: Poetry & Medicine

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I observed in last week’s National Poetry Month post, both poetry and science provide us with new ways to see the world we live in. This week, I want to get more specific and consider one STEM field with a significant relationship to poetry: medicine.

Poets Imagining Doctors

There is a long history of poetry representing doctors and medicine. Robert Southey’s “The Surgeon’s Warning” (1796) provides one Gothic and rather gruesome vision of doctors (thanks to Laura Kremmel for the recommendation!). In it, a doctor on his deathbed worries about how his corpse will be treated:

All kinds of carcasses I have cut up,
        And the judgment now must be–
    But brothers I took care of you,
        So pray take care of me!

    I have made candles of infants fat
        The Sextons have been my slaves,
    I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
        Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

    And my Prentices now will surely come
        And carve me bone from bone,
    And I who have rifled the dead man’s grave
        Shall never have rest in my own.

This is an image of the doctor as monster, as one who perhaps deserves to receive the treatment he’s given others’ corpses (ultimately, “they carv’d him bone from bone”), and it reflects 18th century fears of doctors and surgeons themselves as well as those who worked alongside them (graverobbers, for instance).

Women in Science & Technology II: Medicine and Health

Women in STEM

For the second entry in our series on women in science and technology, we turn to women working on medicine and health. These women have forged new ground in medical education, done important work alongside men, and helped fill gaps in medical research by paying attention to women’s bodies.

The Edinburgh Seven – selected by Laura Kremmel

The Edinburgh Seven were not only the first women medical students in Britain, they were also the first British women to be undergraduates of any field. They included Sophia Jex-Blake, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Edith Pechey, and Isabel Thorne. After being admitted to the University of Edinburgh in 1869, they had to fight for every advancement, including assessments and clinicals, sometimes against the system and its policies and sometimes against their own professors and the men in their classes. The following year, building anger against the women culminated in the Surgeon’s Hall Riots, in which a hostile crowd of hundreds (and one sheep) attempted to prevent them from entering the building to take an exam. Despite their perseverance, they were ultimately denied their degrees. In response, they started the London School of Medicine for Women. Sophia Jex-Blake became the first woman doctor in Edinburgh, and the others continued to work in medicine in various ways.

The story of the Edinburgh Seven resurfaced in the public eye in 2019, when seven women medical students received posthumous degrees on their behalf, finally giving them the recognition for which they worked so hard. Learn more in this short video about the 2019 event.


Virginia E. Johnson – selected by Kayla Pritchard

When she was hired by gynecologist William Masters in 1970 to be his assistant in his sexology lab, their work dramatically shaped our understanding of human sexual response. As half of the “Masters and Johnson” duo, they studied the physiology and biomechanics of human sexual response, identifying what they called the “sexual response cycle,” a predictable pattern of Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, and Resolution. Despite not having a college degree, Johnson was integral to the success of Masters’ lab. Because they were observing and measuring people actually have sex, it was Johnson’s soothing and comforting mannerisms that put people at ease and allowed the work to take place, and she also collaborated on the development of the instruments they were using. While their work is not without controversy, they fundamentally changed how researchers, doctors, and psychiatrists talked about and approached sex with their patients.

Stacy Sims – selected by Olivia Burgess

As someone with an interest in endurance sports, I’m always on the lookout for information related to nutrition, training, and health. However, most research takes a “shrink it and pink it” approach to women: take what you do for a man and then extrapolate it for a woman. Exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr. Stacy Sims challenged that paradigm by researching how women’s training and nutrition needs are unique from men’s. As she says, “women are not small men.” She launched her own educational website and sports performance nutrition brand after serving as a research scientist at Stanford University from 2007-2012. In 2017, she was recognized as “one of the top 4 visionaries” in the outdoor sports industry by Outside Magazine

I consider her a scientist worthy of note for two main reasons: 1) she saw a gap in research related to women’s health and responded by researching women to understand women, and 2) she successfully balances her academic and scientific research with effective mainstream communication to educate women around the world. In 2016, she published Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life. She is currently a Senior Research Associate at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.

If you missed it, check out our first entry in this series, too!