by Craig M. Klugman

Craig M. Klugman, Ph.D. is Vincent de Paul Professor of Bioethics & Health Humanities at DePaul University in Chicago. 

Medicine has a race problem. 

Many people have heard of the health disparities that affect people of color in the United States: They are less likely to have a primary care physician (KFF), less likely to have health insurance coverage (Branch and Conway), and suffer from higher rates of illness and death (Hill et al.).

Fewer people know that this problem also manifests in health care workers. First, there are fewer health care professionals of color than there should be based on their percentage of the U.S. population (Sullivan Commission). This means that a patient from a minority community is less likely to have a physician or a nurse who looks like them or shares their background. Second,  a recent study shows that racial health inequities in the U.S. health care system during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased burnout and moral distress in all health care providers, no matter their race (Buchbinder et al.). 

Historically, Black patients were often denied care at hospitals, and real estate redlining meant that they likely lived (and continue to live) in medical deserts. Add in fewer economic opportunities as well as fewer educational opportunities and Black patients have had less access to being able to pay for medical care. 

Advances in medical knowledge often used Black patients as research subjects, seldom with their knowledge or consent. In the mid-1800s, James Marion Sims, the father of obstetrics and gynecology, developed surgical techniques on enslaved Black woman with neither their consent nor anesthesia (Lynch; Spettel and White). During the 40 years of the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials (1932-1972), 600 Black men were studied to observe the progression of their disease. However, health care professionals and researchers never informed the men of their disease nor how to protect their partners and the men were told that research tests were “treatment”. Once penicillin (the cure) was available, study personnel prevented the men from getting access. This history and many more examples created distrust of the medical community that has lasted until today. 

While modern medical school curriculums teach students to respect all patients and to treat people according to their needs not by the color of the skin, racial inequities in medical care persist. In addition to the social determinants of health touched upon above, another factor may be “The Hidden Curriculum” (Hafferty and Franks). This is the material that is not listed in the syllabus, does not appear in the textbook and will not be on the exam. The hidden curriculum is the behaviors, attitudes, and implicit biases that students absorb from their faculty through their training. 

Much of the didactic (classroom learning) years of medical education take place in lecture halls and labs where students learn from textbooks and case studies. Studies show that medical textbooks feature predominantly white bodies (Ighodaro et al.). Thus, students learn to diagnose and treat diseases as they appear in people with lighter skin but not in people with darker skin. For example, cancer on white skin is often quite noticeable, but on Black skin, less so. The result is that skin cancers in Black patients are diagnosed later when the disease is at a more advanced stage, harder to treat, and correspondingly, survival rates are lower (Brady et al.). The case studies that form the background of students developing clinical thinking skills traditionally featured patients who are male, white, cis, heterosexual, and able-bodied (Plataforma SINC). 

When a student moves into the second phase of medical school where they work with patients in clinics and hospitals, they quickly learn to emulate their physician-mentors who model skills, tool, and behaviors that are sometimes derived from historic racism. These clinical preceptors also grade the students who quickly learn to repeat what they are shown—often without explanation, history, or evidence—and not to question (Klugman). Thus, the system perpetuates biased stereotypes to the next generation of health professionals. For example, the long-used algorithm to estimate kidney function unfairly penalized Black patients because the calculations are based on a convenient lie about the physical musculature of Black bodies. The result is that Black patients are less likely to be placed on the transplant list (Neal and Morse). In another study, subjects (including medical personnel) expressed a belief that Black patients felt less pain, a lie rooted in the horrors of slavery. The result is that some doctors undertreat pain in their Black patients today (Hoffman et al.). 

One potential avenue for training physicians and other health care workers to practice anti-racist medicine is through health humanities. This field employs the methods of the humanities and arts to explore the experience of human illness and wellness. By having health professions students learn close reading, metaphor analysis, observation skills, communication skills, historical analysis and more, they can become more aware of the structural racism that people experience in everyday life and in the medical system (Banner). 

The tools of the humanities teach students to identify presumptions and biases that are embedded in the practice of medicine, challenging them, and then changing them (Crear-Perry et al.). For example, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, medical students created an art exhibit using QR codes placed around campus that encouraged people to learn more about the history of racism in medicine and its effect on the health of populations of color (Keenan). Graphic medicine can use comics (visual images + text) to shine light on injustice in medicine. In one comic, the artists graphically explain the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the generational health costs of its legacy (Taylor and Kindred). 

Many schools take students to museums where they learn observation skills through looking at images of art, a method to help them see what is in front of them and move beyond stereotypes they may bring when seeing patients (Balhara and Irvin; Klugman et al.; Klugman and Beckmann-Mendez). Learning improvisational theater techniques can help clinicians communicate better with patients and to understand patient perspectives (Fessell et al.). Forum theater is a method where the audience interacts with the actors and the story on the stage. This experience can help students to see race and racism as experienced by their patients and peers  (Manzi et al.). Fiction writing asks students to write about the life and health care experiences of a person different than themselves, helping them up to understand living with health challenges and navigating the medical system (Saffran). In Experiential Race Testimonies, students study health disparity statistics and then learn the stories of real patients whose lives are encapsulated in that data, putting a human face on the numbers (Ray). These examples are a few of many that have been introduced to medical education. 

To use the humanities most effectively in anti-racist health education, one must read stories, watch films, and view art that are created by people of color and that take people of color as the central subject. The works should focus on how race, gender, disability, religious minorities, and sexual orientation “inform social, political, economic, and institutional structures, which then inform health and illness” (Banner). The health humanities can help students to learn to identify racist structures and practices, to bring the hidden into the light, to dismantle these discriminatory beliefs, and to be physicians and other health care professionals that work to bend the arc toward justice. 

This approach can lead to writing new case study narratives that feature a diverse cast of characters representing the wide range of patients to whom medical students will someday provide care, a step that some medical schools have undertaken (Sufian et al.). As for that kidney algorithm? In January 2023, a revised model was adopted that removes the racist assumptions (Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network). We also need to entice more students of color into the health care professions. Some effective methods have included removing standardized testing (which can have biased origins and questions), providing minority scholarships, mentoring, and role modeling. 

Perhaps most importantly, engaging in health humanities teaches students empathy—an ability to imagine what another person might be experiencing as well as sensing the emotions of another (Graham et al.). When working with patients who are different from the health care provider, empathy allows the imagination to see them as suffering human beings in need of care, deserving of compassion, and demanding respect. The result will be better health outcomes for patients, more inclusive medicine, and healthier healers. 


Balhara, K. S. and N. Irvin. “”The Guts to Really Look at It”-Medicine and Race in Robert Colescott’s Emergency Room.” JAMA, vol. 325, no. 2, 2021, pp. 113-15, Medline, doi:10.1001/jama.2020.20888.

Banner, Olivia. “Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 34, no. 1, 2016, pp. 25-52, doi:10.1353/lm.2016.0001.

Brady, J. et al. “Racial Disparities in Patients with Melanoma: A Multivariate Survival Analysis.” Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol, vol. 14, 2021, pp. 547-50, PubMed-not-MEDLINE, doi:10.2147/CCID.S311694.

Branch, Breauna and Douglas Conway. “Health Insurance Coverage by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2021.” US Department of Commerce US Census Bureau, 2022. January 20, 2023.

Buchbinder, Mara et al. “Hospital Physicians’ Perspectives on Occupational Stress During Covid-19: A Qualitative Analysis from Two Us Cities.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, vol. 38, 2023, pp. 176-84, doi:10.1007/s11606-022-07848-z.

Crear-Perry, Joia et al. “Moving Towards Anti-Racist Praxis in Medicine.” The Lancet, vol. 396, 2020, pp. 451-53, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31543-9.

Fessell, D. et al. “Medical Improvisation Training for All Medical Students: 3-Year Experience.” Med Sci Educ, vol. 30, no. 1, 2020, pp. 87-90, PubMed-not-MEDLINE, doi:10.1007/s40670-019-00885-0.

Graham, J. et al. “Medical Humanities Coursework Is Associated with Greater Measured Empathy in Medical Students.” Am J Med, vol. 129, no. 12, 2016, pp. 1334-37, Medline, doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2016.08.005.

Hafferty, Frederick. W. and Ronald Franks. “The Hidden Curriculum, Ethics Teaching, and the Structure of Medical Education.” Academic Medicine, vol. 69, no. 11, 1994, pp. 861-71, Medline, doi:10.1097/00001888-199411000-00001.

Hill, Latoya et al. “Key Facts on Health and Health Care by Race and Ethnicity.” Kaiser Family Foundation Accessed January 20 2023.

Hoffman, K. M. et al. “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs About Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, vol. 113, no. 16, 2016, pp. 4296-301, Medline, doi:10.1073/pnas.1516047113.

Ighodaro, Eseosa et al. “We Need More Illustrations of People of Color in Medical Textbooks — the Lack of Diversity Perpetuates Health Inequality and Stereot.” MedPage Today, 2022,

Keenan, John. “Project Explores History of Racism in Medicine.” University of Nebraska Medical Center, 2022. January 16, 2023.

KFF. “Adults Who Report Not Having a Personal Doctor/Health Care Provider by Race/Ethnicity.” Kaiser Family Foundation Accessed January 20 2023.

Klugman, Craig M. Does Medical Education Make Physicians Susceptible to Participating in Torture? Bioethics Today, 2013 Palo Alto, CA: Accessed January 20, 2023.

Klugman, Craig M. et al. “Art Rounds: Teaching Interprofessional Students Visual Thinking Strategies at One School.” Academic Medicine, vol. 86, no. 10, 2011, pp. 1266-71, doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e31822c1427.

Klugman, Craig. M. and Diana Beckmann-Mendez. “One Thousand Words: Evaluating an Interdisciplinary Art Education Program.” Journal of Nursing Education, vol. 54, no. 4, 2015, pp. 220-3, doi:10.3928/01484834-20150318-06.

Lynch, Sarah. “Fact Check: Father of Modern Gynecology Performed Experiments on Enslaved Black Women.” USA Today, 2020,

Manzi, Joel et al. “Responding to Racism in the Clinical Setting: A Novel Use of Forum Theatre in Social Medicine Education.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 41, 2020, pp. 489-500, doi:10.1007/s10912-020-09608-8.

Neal, R. E. and M. Morse. “Racial Health Inequities and Clinical Algorithms: A Time for Action.” Clin J Am Soc Nephrol, vol. 16, no. 7, 2021, pp. 1120-21, Medline, doi:10.2215


Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network. “Understanding Race & Gender.” US Department of Health & Human Services Accessed January 20, 2023.

Plataforma SINC. “Medical Textbooks Use White, Heterosexual Men as a ‘Universal Model.” ScienceDaily, 2008,

Ray, Keisha S. “Going Beyond the Data: Using Testimonies to Humanize Pedagogy on Black Health.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 42, 2021, pp. 725-35, doi:10.1007/s10912-021-09681-7.

Saffran, Lise. “Fiction Writing.” Research Methods of Health Humanities, edited by Craig M. Klugman and Erin Gentry Lee, Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 268-86.

Spettel, S. and M. D. White. “The Portrayal of J. Marion Sims’ Controversial Surgical Legacy.” J Urol, vol. 185, no. 6, 2011, pp. 2424-7, Medline, doi:10.1016/j.juro.2011.01.077.

Sufian, S. et al. “Centering Patients, Revealing Structures: The Health Humanities Portrait Approach.” J Med Humanit, vol. 41, no. 4, 2020, pp. 459-79, Medline, doi:10.1007/s10912-020-09640-8.

Sullivan Commission. “Missing Persons: Minorities in the Health Professions.” Duke University Medical Center, 2016. general editor, Sullivan Commission on Divesrity in the Healthcare Workforce, Accessed January 20, 2023.

Taylor, Whit and Chris Kindred. “African-Americans Are More Likely to Distrust the Medical System. Blame the Tuskegee Experiment.” The Nib, February 26 2018, p. Comic. Accessed January 17, 2023.


by Gregory Carr

Colors don’t clash, people just do/Color me happy next to you/Aww, just like it should, there goes the Neighborhood/That is what they’d have us believe/Paint the White House black, brown/Paint the White House…/Paint the White House black, brown/Paint the White House, black…

– GEORGE CLINTON, “Paint the White House Black,” (1993)

The Reconstruction Era indelibly changed American politics. From 1865 until 1875, Blacks became U.S. senators and U.S. representatives from the South during the Reconstruction Era and obtained male suffrage through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, only to be thwarted by the terroristic activities of the Ku Klux Klan at the polls, Rutherford B. Hayes’ Compromise of 1877, and the implementation of Jim Crow laws. Many people thought before Barack Obama’s unlikely candidacy in 2008 that a Black man becoming president would be practically impossible, given this country’s racialized history and hostility towards Black participation in the political process and Black political leadership. 

This phenomenon did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. D.W. Griffith was the first filmmaker to seize upon the fear of Black leadership with his propagandistic film Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith’s paean to the nobility of the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative lionized the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and conquerors, while simultaneously demonizing Blacks as shiftless, indolent, violent, and unfit for political office. Hollywood would not challenge Griffith’s cinematic white supremacist ideology until 57 years later with a film featuring America’s first Black president. Hollywood films that feature Black presidents as central figures tend to demonstrate a high level of implicit bias in determining Black men’s fitness to lead while simultaneously perpetuating the “doomsday” trope. The films Idiocracy (2006), The Man (1972), and Deep Impact (1998), foreshadow three fearful apocalyptic themes in the American political psyche: the culmination of white patriarchal rule during a national crisis, the end of moral consciousness in leadership, which leads to the cessation of physical existence.

The culmination of white patriarchal rule has often been used as a rationale for excluding Blacks from elected offices such as the presidency. Hillary Clinton in the now infamous “3 AM” ad questioned whether Obama would know what to do in an international military crisis and if the America people could trust him with their children’s safety. This political tactic is also evidenced in the satirical film Idiocracy. Dwayne Elizondo “Mountain Dew” Herbert Camacho seems to embody this persona of absolute buffoonery. Set 500 years into the future, the film laments the absence of intellectualism in politics. Camacho, a former porn star and wrestler is the president and faces a series of crises such as food insecurity, a drought, and an unstable economy. Private Joe Bauers, a young white military librarian who wakes up in 2505 after a failed cryogenic experiment, solves the incompetent Camacho’s national problems, becomes a national hero, and then becomes president in his place. Camacho’s presidency has been intellectual ruin for the country, which ultimately is rescued by the ubiquitous Hollywood white savior in the form of Bauers. Although this pre-dates the Obama presidency by two years, the aforementioned attacks on Obama’s intellectual capacity to lead now seem prescient in light of the film. Tambay Obenson argues, “The message apparently was only morons would put a Black man in the White House.”

To demonstrate how pervasive this attack on Obama’s intellect was, Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts:

“From the “inadequate black male” diatribe of the Hillary Clinton supporter                    
Harriet Christian in 2008, to Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC against                
subsidizing “losers’ mortgages,” to Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!”            
outburst during Obama’s September 2009 address to Congress, to John            
Boehner’s screaming “Hell no!” on the House floor about Obamacare in                        
2010, politicized rage has marked the opposition to Obama.”

The prevailing assumption with these generalizations was that a Black man could not be entrusted to be the leader of the free world in the same way a Black man previously could not be a quarterback in the NFL – they just simply lacked the leadership skills that only a white man could provide as president – regardless of their ability or inability.

In addition to the culmination of white patriarchal rule, films featuring Black presidents seem to paint a picture of a lack of moral fortitude. Black men’s moral fortitude has often been questioned historically. Although he only received less than 2,000 votes in 1904, George Edwin Taylor ran for president on the National Negro Liberty Party ticket. Was his low vote count because white constituents thought he was of low moral character? Was it because of the many negative connotations of blackness? After Emancipation, Black men were labeled stereotypically as “lazy,” “dangerous,” or “violent.” Noted Swedish scientist Carl von Linnaeus in his classification of the races in his seminal work “Sistema Naturae” classified those of the African race as “‘niger, phlegmaticus, laxus” (“black, phlegmatic, lax’”).   With this negative idea of Black men embedded within the American consciousness, Taylor’s status as an outlier may have made him a liability; however, Taylor’s presence may have also frightened some white voters who believed the stereotypes about Black men’s immoral character through the media, myths, and oral family histories. In film The Man, Douglas Dilman becomes the president through succession as a result of the assassination of the President and the Speaker of the House, the refusal of the Vice-President to assume the office because of health challenges, and the Secretary of State, who rightfully bestow the office upon him because he was President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Stanton’s wife ridicules him for not seizing the power away from Dilman and declare himself President. Eaton agrees to assist Dilman, but only to be the “power behind the throne” who will micromanage Dilman as President. Dilman initially goes along with the scheme but begins to develop confidence in his own abilities to lead the country as president. By the end of the movie, he challenges Eaton for the party nomination and vows to become the first Black President of the United States. This scenario mirrors Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which his then Democratic rival and future Vice-President Joe Biden clumsily stated: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Biden later stated that his comments were taken out of context, but they are clearly racist and demeaning at their core. Translation: “articulate,” (for a Black guy), and “bright and clean,” (acceptable to whites). These dog whistles signal that Obama, like Dilman was more of the exception to the rule rather the than the norm for Black leaders.

Ultimately, a Black president who lacked the intellectual capacity to make crucial decisions during a national crisis and lacked the moral fortitude to inspire and motivate his people who lead to the worst-case scenario – the end of our physical existence.  Since we’re all going to die, we need someone to comfort us in those waning hours. And who better to ease our discomfort than a Black President? President Tom Beck of Deep Impact played by Morgan Freeman gives us a sympathetic ear to face our trials. In the end, he’s powerless to save us from the impending disaster of the doomsday meteorite, but he can make us comfortable with our eventual demise: “Hello, America. It is my unhappy duty to report to you that the Messiah has failed.” The presumption is that if it was the end of the world, a Black president would be acceptable because he would be subservient to his traumatized white constituency – an homage to the self-sacrificing, Integrationist Hero films of Sidney Poitier during the turbulent 1960s.

Although we’re now in a Post-Obama Presidency, hopefully we can see how the racist vitriol and disrespect fueled a toxic Trump Campaign and Presidency. He was the chief architect of the so-called “Birther Movement,” which presupposed that Obama was not an American citizen, was born in Kenya, and therefore should be disqualified as President. These frivolous conspiracy theories along with many other dangerous ones are now a part of mainstream politics. Election Deniers are now viable candidates for statewide and federal offices, and democracy itself is now in peril. The burning question still remains: did Obama paint the White House black? A little – but only time (and perhaps future Hollywood Black Presidents) will tell.


Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Fear of a Black President.” The Atlantic. September 2012 Issue.

“A Dubious Compliment.” Time Magazine. January 31, 2007.,28804,1895156_1894977_1644536,00.html

Judge, Mike, dir. Idiocracy, 2006; Austin, TX: 20th Century Fox.

Justice, John. “11 Movies with Black Presidents to Help You Escape Donald Trump’s Inauguration.” January 19, 2017.                    

Leder, Mimi, dir. Deep Impact, 1998; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures.                         

Obenson, Tambay. “Presidents Day Poll: Best Black Presidents on Film; 7 Candidates on the Ballot; Cast Your Votes!” IndieWire. February 15, 2016.

Rönnbäck, Klas. “The Idle and the Industrious – European Ideas about the African Work Ethic in Precolonial West Africa.” History in Africa 41 (2014): 117–45.

Sargent, Joseph, dir. The Man, 1972; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures.                         

“3am Ad.” YouTube, 2008.                                                                                                               

Weeks, Linton. “A Forgotten Presidential Candidate from 1904.” December 1, 2015.



by Alissa Simon

The laws of physics appear straightforward. From elementary school on, we learn of their lasting permanence. However, as theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto points out in her recent book The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through Counterfactuals, they are far from perfect. She notes that we do not totally understand the nature of some of these laws, but also that these laws have been tested, and in some cases, replaced by theories of relativity. She writes, 

“There are no absolute sources of certain truth: any good solution to a problem may also contain some errors. This principle is based on fallibilism, a pillar of [Karl] Popper’s explanation of rational thinking. Fallibilism makes progress feasible because it allows for further criticism to occur in the future, even when at present we seem to be content with whatever solution we have found. It leaves space for creating ever-improving theories, stories, works of art, and music; it also tells us that errors are extremely interesting things to look for. Whenever we try to make progress, we should hope to find more of them, as fast as possible.” (16)

In other words, if we believe in progress, then we must believe in the fallibility of our best theories. Reading this book at times felt heretical, so strong was my grip on the laws of physics. (Please note that I am not a scientist, and so I have a high school vocabulary for much of this discussion.) Yet, Marletto’s words inspired me as no other recent non-fiction has. She asks us to think for ourselves and question our preconceived notions – even those seemingly permanent ones that we learned in school along the way. 

Reading this book inspired questions about humanity’s relationship to progress. Can humans sustain a mindset of perpetual unknowns? Marletto says that we should hope to find errors as quickly as possible, and I agree, but I also wonder what the human threshold for change might be. Constant questions challenge, and often annoy, us. Is that because of the way that we are taught about education and knowledge? Do we have misconceptions about the meaning of knowledge? We enter elementary school with a creative genius which colors the world any way we like. In primary grades, we are taught to look, explore, and question. However, snapshots of higher education show students taking notes, dictation, and tasked with memorization. This style of education may solidify the notion that knowledge is eternal. Marletto continues: 

“Any conjectured explanation which seems to be working may be found to be false at any time. As I said, this happened with Newton’s theory of gravitation when it was superseded by quantum theory and general relativity. We can never know whether a physical theory that we have formulated is true; all we can say is that it has so far not been found to be false. This may seem a little unsettling, but it is an extremely interesting fact about how knowledge is created; and, as I said, it is central to the possibility of making progress, via criticism.” (24)

This challenges my notions of knowledge, which previously felt monolithic, substantial, and solid. Marletto’s definition of knowledge is flexible, elastic, and tenuous. She accepts fallibility as a necessary feature of knowledge, which means that it is always subject to improvement and change. I sat with this notion for some time, and even re-read the end of her book while doing so because her words are extremely valuable and profound. Maybe I alone crowned knowledge king, in which case, I will work to unseat it from its throne. Rather than memorizing facts (which may or may not be useful depending on your discipline), I have the ability to become a better student. Open curiosity is a very valuable trait in lifelong learning.  And yet, so is knowledge. There is a tension here in the way that I want knowledge to be certain and steadfast, but also flexible. 

Marletto’s book incorporates literary analysis as a way to show how knowledge is a journey. This marvelous blend of disciplines breeds pathways to insight and carves the path for future science research, a path unmired from historical cement. Marletto asks us to create, to be creative readers, to evolve. She writes, “What matters is whether, along the journey, the character has or has not managed to create more knowledge while preserving his or her own individual capacity to create new knowledge. So an ending can be a fertile starting point; it depends on whether the character reaching the end is still capable of being creative. In fact, a successful nostos [return] does not have an ending. Its ending is the starting point of new adventures.” (225) Rather than accepting an end with finality, she claims that we have power to change and adapt, to find new questions and reassess our initial questions. Investigations become better as they gain data. 

I admit, this new way of thinking may not be new to everyone. Yet, more often than not, as educators, we assume our role is to instruct and form, to pass on knowledge of a firmer sort. What I would rather see in the classroom, however, is the ability to pass on questions. Demonstrate failure (a failed experiment or theory or manuscript, or what have you) as a step in the path towards success. What parts of our existing world have we not yet investigated? Where do our theories fail? Revitalizing questions will revitalize creativity, something that Marletto deems extremely important. She says, “Creativity is one of the main tools we have to form stuff that can last. If one is interested in making the good outcomes of our civilisation last and improve, then understanding how creativity is nurtured – both at the individual and at the societal levels – is essential.” (220) Fostering exploration will help students identify their own innate curiosity. 

I realize that this might cause stress for both educators and students. Constant challenge will unseat all stability. Questions that seem long resolved can be revisited, sometimes with fruitless efforts. All of this comes at the cost of time, so it is important that students select specialties based upon interests. Passion will drive questions with an energy that might overcome all other roadblocks. There is more to be done with regards to knowledge and its source. There is also more to be done with creativity. These two seemingly divergent topics are inherently related as I discovered partially due to Marletto’s excellent text. 

By mixing disciplines Marletto grants new eyes to old questions. More importantly, she inspires curiosity and demands us to undo some of our preexisting knowledge….a Herculean, and quasi-antiscientific effort. It makes me wonder why we believe – so strongly – that what we know is correct? I admire the courage of this book because it is creative, multi-disciplinary, and insightful. Moreover, Marletto explains complex scientific notions in ways that are accessible to the layperson. She invites all of us, regardless of degree or discipline, to join the journey.


Oh, the Humanities (OTH) recently conducted a Q and A session with Dr. Kimberly Myers. Dr. Kimberly R. Myers. Dr. Meyers is Professor of Humanities and Medicine and Distinguished Educator at Penn State College of Medicine, where she designed and co-directs Observation & Interpretation, a required course in art museum-based education for first-year medical students, and where she founded and hosts the Penn State Health Physician Writers Group, the group being a way for doctors to pursue creative writing for publication in medical journals. Dr. Myers also created with photographer Wendy Palmer the 2015 exhibition Edges of Light: Images of Breast Transformation with photographer Wendy Palmer which has toured the U.S. Her publications include the books Breast Cancer Inside Out: Bodies, Biographies & Beliefs (Peter Lang, 2021); Graphic Medicine Manifesto (Penn State University Press, 2015, co-authored with MK Czerwiec, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green and Scott T. Smith), Clinical Ethics: A Graphic Medicine Casebook (Penn State University Press, 2022, co-authored with Molly Osborne, Charlotte Wu, and illustrated by Zoe Schein), and Illness in the Academy (Purdue University Press, 2007).  

Clare (OTH): Dr. Myers, I had the pleasure of attending a recent talk that you gave at Trinity College, Dublin on graphic medicine. Your presentation’s theme was, briefly, that the medium of comics can enhance the training and practice of healthcare providers and can be an important source of information and support for patients and caregivers contending with illness. There was some very cogent feedback from the audience. What was the most unexpected question or response from the session — or something else that stood out to you about the event? 

Dr. Myers: Thanks, Clare, for reaching out with these questions. What stood out most for me was that we had such a lively discussion from both sides of the Atlantic—even though here in the U.S., where we’re five to eight hours behind you in Ireland, we began before breakfast! Our meeting was a fine example of the ways graphic medicine—that is, issues of health, illness, and wellbeing conveyed in the form of comics—can so easily open up discussion among people from all walks of life. Comics is a great ice-breaker. One reason for its effectiveness is likely subconscious—that is, comics aren’t threatening because they are associated with childhood. People who view a comic typically assume they’ll “get it.” There’s no pressure to sound erudite when commenting on it and there’s no test to follow, so they feel free to offer their thoughts about what’s going on in the panels.  Further, comics is a democratic medium in that it has the capacity to engage people no matter their understanding of a particular language or their cultural contexts. Pictures and words work together to create understanding and/or questions, and it usually feels natural to invite other people to share our responses when we talk about comics. When we gathered at Trinity, it was interesting to see the plentiful comments in chat that continued throughout our entire spoken discussion. 


OTH: In your essay in Graphic Medicine Manifesto (2015) you talk about coming to appreciate comics later than some of your co-contributors—as a child who was a voracious reader you preferred biography and “proper” fiction. Have you encountered a prejudice against adults reading comics amongst doctors and other members of the medical community?

Dr. Myers: As learned professionals, whatever our professions, we probably all initially carry some unconscious bias against comics as a “serious” medium. There’s actually a debate within the graphic medicine community whether we should call what we do “graphic medicine” or “comics.” For some GM folk, the former term lends legitimacy to our work that might otherwise be dismissed as juvenile. Inasmuch comics could seem lightweight to some, it’s wonderful to engage in discussion of a medically-themed comic and witness that skepticism evolve, somewhat magically, into surprise and then conviction that we’re onto something with this comics thing. That’s one of the pleasures of working in this field: it’s just plain fun to experience how comics work as an art form in its own right and also as a catalyst for social engagement. 

To be sure, though, creating comics and readings comics are also very demanding work, as we have to attend to multiple dimensions simultaneously. Just to give you brief insight into the complexity of this process, here’s an overview of how our team created each of the eight comics that comprise Clinical Ethics: A Graphic Medicine Casebook. We created the narrative arc, the essence of what would happen within the story. This includes the kind of characters we wanted (e.g., gender, race, socio-economic status, etc.) and the fine points of the ethical dilemma we were featuring. We consulted with ethics experts to double-check our own training and practice, with patients and caregivers, and with lay readers, including students (our targeted audience) to gauge how effectively we were conveying information and inspiring questions that would lead to invested discussion. The drawing of the comics themselves included a story board, pencil sketches, basic ink drawings, edits, and final inking . . . and there were multiple revisions between each stage of this process. In the verbal sphere, we had to make language concise enough for comics while also ensuring adequate detail and precision to convey the complexity of any situation requiring deliberation multiple stakeholders in the medical-ethics situation we were depicting. It took several months to move each 6- to 8-page comic from idea to publishable art. 


OTH: Some academic librarians have had success using unconventional methods in reaching “nontraditional” learners—for instance, Central Methodist University in Missouri has used Pinterest as a library marketing and information literacy tool. Library staff created boards from images of books and videos and found that this form of social media “lends itself very well to sharing information to visual leaners and traditionalists alike.” Are medical comics also suitable for visual learners, and what are some other cohorts who might also find them helpful? 

Dr. Myers: Yes, medical-themed comics are quite useful for visual learners as well as non-native speakers, low-literacy patients and younger people. It’s important, however, to distinguish between graphic medicine and illustrated guides, for instance pictures showing how to use an inhaler for asthma. Graphic medicine is also different from medical illustrations like those one would find in an anatomy textbook and from visual depictions of bioscientific processes like diagrams of neural pathways. Graphic medicine is more expansive and complex than these other genres, not in terms of the knowledge and talent needed to create or understand them, but in terms of their scope. Graphic medicine artifacts attend simultaneously to structural, biological, psychological, and social dimensions (to name a few) of an illness experience. 


OTH: Let’s talk about another visual medium. When talking about the 2015 exhibition Edges of Light that you created using photos of you by Wendy Palmer and reflective text by yourself, you say that after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, the decision to meet with a photographer and document your pre-surgery body was taken very early on. Why choose photography as a medium and not, for instance, a comics-style illustration? 

Dr. Myers: The short answer, Clare, is that the original motivation for the exhibit was purely personal. Like many women, I wondered how my body would look after mastectomy, and I wondered if, at some point in the future, I might want to remember what my body looked like “before.” I had only a week between diagnosis and my first surgery (lumpectomy), and I acted on that impulse very quickly because I didn’t have time to deliberate. It was only later, after chemotherapy, mastectomy, and surgical reconstruction, that I revisited the photographs that Wendy had taken. We were struck by how many different emotions she had captured, and we thought that other women might find some community—even solace—in seeing someone else’s journey of physical transformation. That’s when we narrowed the 400+ unposed photos to the 30+ photos that constitute the actual exhibit (part of which is reproduced in Breast Cancer Inside Out). After we chose the photos, I wrote the brief verbal reflections, recalling what I was feeling in that moment. I could do this easily because of the remarkable nuance Wendy had captured on film. 


OTH: In your book Breast Cancer Inside Out, you bring together essays from patients, practitioners involved in breast cancer treatment, and academics from the health humanities field.

The aim of the project, as you say in the introduction, is to move towards an inclusive health humanities account of breast cancer, one which gives voice to those with lived experience. As an educator, do you feel that the stories of breast cancer patients have particular resonance for the field of medical humanities? And as someone with her own experience of this disease, do you hope that patients who are living with or have lived with breast cancer will read this book?

Dr. Myers: I’ll tackle your second question first. I do hope that people living with breast cancer—the patients and also the family, friends, and healthcare professionals who care for them—find the book meaningful and helpful. I created this particular book because it was what I needed and wanted when I was diagnosed but couldn’t find all in one place: various components of diagnosis and treatment; insights from people who shared my illness; personal perspectives from doctors, nurses, therapists, and other professionals who care for those with breast cancer; wider contexts of scientific, historical, cultural, academic, and artistic significance. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Breast Cancer Inside Out is the book I wish I’d had.

I think stories about all illness experiences are valuable, integral in fact, to medical humanities because we’re meaning-making creatures and we make meaning through the stories we tell and those we hear. One thing I discovered with my first book, Illness in the Academy, is that people who have experienced breast cancer have a need and a desire to write and otherwise tell their stories. If I were a medical anthropologist, I would conduct a study on why breast cancer pathographies are so popular and seemingly much more plentiful than first-person accounts of other illness experiences. My conjecture is that it has to do with the fact that the disease affects mostly women. I’m not an essentialist with regard to gender, but I do think women tend to form communities around deeply personal struggles perhaps more often than men do. Sharing stories about breast cancer can certainly be a bonding experience, one that women might imagine men could not as fully, if at all, understand. Whether the impulse grows out of a community or serves to create a community, I believe many people have a desire to help others who are faced with the trauma of a potentially life-threatening illness. Stories in the form of first-person reflections, photographs, comics, visual and other artifacts can create virtual support groups.        

OTH, thanks very much for providing an opportunity to think about what I do from different angles.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie


This issue of OTH Bookshelf focuses on the burgeoning topic of medical humanities, a discipline defined by the University of Michigan as “a broad field, encompassing the interface between the science of the health professions and other disciplines, including history, literature, creative writing, performing arts, visual arts and journalism.”

This OTH list of more than 150 open access academic titles includes the book’s author or editor names, title and title remainder, year of publication, publisher, and open access format (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, etc.) Subject headings in the list are taken from WorldCat records or Library of Congress records, if available: if not, original cataloging of subject headings is provided in WorldCat format, for consistency. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) of the book is given if it is available on the publisher’s website; if not, the URL is provided. The ISBNs listed are for the online version of the book if available, and if more than one online ISBN is available the ISBN for the PDF version has been preferred; if there is not an online or e-book ISBN, the ISBN featured on the publisher’s website is included. The book’s license type (Creative Commons, etc.), terms of use or copyright restrictions are included if these have been provided by the publisher. Those monographs hosted on the National Library of Medicine – National Center for Biotechnology’s Bookshelf which are outputs of Wellcome Trust funding have been made freely available as part of the Wellcome Trust’s open access policy. 

If our readers are aware of any title or publishers that are not included, please feel free to submit them for consideration. (To be included in OTH Bookshelf, a book must be available to read online and/or download for free and must have been assigned an ISBN.) And we welcome your suggestions for topics that might be covered in a future issue of OTH Bookshelf.




For I am my mother’s daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart.” – Mary McLeod Bethune

This edition of OTH Bookshelf focuses on the African diaspora and Black history. This OTH list of more than 100 open access academic titles includes the book’s author or editor names, title and title remainder, year of publication, publisher, and open access format (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, etc.) Subject headings in the list are taken from WorldCat records or Library of Congress records, if available: if not, original cataloging of subject headings is provided in WorldCat format, for consistency. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) of the book is given if it is available on the publisher’s website; if not, the URL is provided. The ISBNs listed are for the online version of the book if available, and if more than one online ISBN is available the ISBN for the PDF version has been preferred; if there is not an online or e-book ISBN, the ISBN featured on the publisher’s website is included. The book’s license type (Creative Commons, etc.), terms of use or copyright restrictions are included if these have been provided by the publisher.

If our readers are aware of any title or publishers that are not included, please feel free to submit them for consideration. (To be included in OTH Bookshelf, a book must be available to read online and/or download for free and must have been assigned an ISBN.) And we welcome your suggestions for topics that might be covered in a future issue of OTH Bookshelf.





The Flying University for Ukrainian Students

by Andrzej W. Tymowski 

Anyone who has recently visited a college or university campus in the United States knows the humanities are on the defensive.  Underfunded and often under fire ideologically, majors in the liberal arts are losing ground to more practical and professional studies that seem to give better return on investment for students’ future careers.  

It may come as a surprise, then, that in war-torn Ukraine students turned to liberal-arts teaching by U.S. professors to help endure the war and to prepare themselves for rebuilding the country.

Andrzej W. Tymowski, formerly Director of International Programs at the American Council of Learned Societies, is a member of the Editorial Committee of the journal East European Politics and Societies.



Soon after Russia’s multi-pronged attack on Ukraine in February 2022, in the scramble to find ways to assist victims and support resistance, an unusual call went out for U.S. professors to “Donate Your Own Course” to Ukrainian students.  The basic idea was to deliver intensive, online classes to students whose lives and academic careers had been disrupted by the war.  The students could gain valuable knowledge, develop international academic contacts, and find comfort in new networks.

The name chosen for the initiative, the Flying University for Ukrainian Students (FUUS), referred to clandestine courses taught by professors in Poland at historical moments when the country was occupied by foreign powers.  Their classes “flew” from one private apartment to another to avoid surveillance by hostile authorities.  Lectures continued independent traditions of learning in order to educate the next generation of leadership for Polish society.  One of the most famous flying university graduates was Marie Skłodowska Curie, who later won two Nobel Prizes, in chemistry and in physics, and became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne University in Paris.  In today’s Ukraine, classes were to fly over the internet, dodging blackouts, and alighting on tenuous spaces of time available to students dislocated by war. 

In April 2022 a FUUS organizing committee, led by Izabela Kalinowska Blackwood of SUNY Stony Brook and Andrzej W. Tymowski of the American Council of Learned Societies (retired), secured funding from the Kosciuszko Foundation of New York for a pilot program of twelve one-week courses.  

The classes were scheduled for mid-June, a time when most universities in the United States are not in session and professors can consider independent projects.  To provide a broad liberal arts curriculum, organizers approached accomplished scholars in many disciplines who were experienced in, and dedicated to, teaching undergraduates.  Professors responded enthusiastically, wanting to assist in a desperate situation and to learn firsthand about the way the war has affected undergraduates in Ukraine.  Despite best intentions, however, not everyone could free up the three weeks of time necessary for designing an intensive course, teaching it, advising students, and evaluating their papers.  

In May an open call for applications was circulated to Ukrainian BA and MA students in the humanities and related social sciences.  Because FUUS would accept anyone who had been studying in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion, without regard for current location, it seemed likely that applications would come not only from within Ukraine but also from neighboring countries that were welcoming Ukrainian refugees.  It turned out, however, that a great majority of applications came from students in Ukraine, who were either studying at their home universities (as best they could) or forced into internal exile within the country.  

Another surprise: the non-humanities profiles of many applicants.  By a large majority, applicants were pursuing practical-professional studies, such as law, international relations, business, and computer science.  When one of the organizers expressed dismay at the mismatch with the humanistic topics proposed by liberal arts faculty, the professors ruefully noted that they are very familiar in the United States with students who say they would rather study literature or history, but who feel pressured by their parents and the job market to choose something more marketable.  One Ukrainian student expressed this sentiment in just so many words,  “I’d wanted to study literature, but my parents asked me to choose a more practical subject.”

Preparations began in earnest to recruit U.S. faculty (and their course descriptions and syllabi), to circulate publicity calling students to apply for the limited number of places, and to assign students to courses. Because time was short, the deadlines for all these activities fell due almost simultaneously.  That courses began as scheduled June 6 was an achievement testifying to the ingenuity and intelligence of the faculty, to the commitment of the students, and to the self-discipline and hard work of all.

From the roster of twelve courses available in June, applicants identified first and second choices.  Their preferences could not always be honored, because of the time urgency and the great number of non-humanities majors.  This resulted in uneven course enrollments, with an average of twelve students per course.  Further adjustments within courses were made necessary by the fact that a few students were taking final exams at their home universities.  Each FUUS course met four times in one week, with an extra day devoted to individual consultations.  Students were assigned readings and videos and discussed them in class.  Each student wrote a short paper and received the professor’s written comments.  Certificates of completion were awarded to FUUS students at a formal, online, graduation ceremony.  Professors as well as students spoke at the ceremony, along with invited guests and Marek Skulimowski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

The energy and curiosity of the students deeply impressed FUUS organizers and faculty.  [See Deirdre Lynch, “Teaching Frankenstein in Ukraine,” Los Angeles Review of Books]  The Flying University was, after all, a unknown enterprise.  Moreover, some students had taken courses outside their own interests.  Choosing from an array of topics and approaches, although standard practice at American liberal arts colleges, is not typical in East European universities.  Undergraduates in Ukraine do not expect to start their university careers with general education courses.  They enroll from the start in departments for training in a specific discipline, with very few options for electives or courses outside the department.

However, the chance to study with professors from leading U.S. colleges and universities proved a potent draw, as did the prospect of improving academic English for access to international scholarship and learning.  It is also true that the short, intensive character of “flying” courses, even without university credit, is more accessible to students in a war zone, because they find it difficult to commit to semester-long courses.

The FUUS roster covered contemporary as well as historical topics.  [See the attached list of professors, course titles, and brief descriptions.]  Courses in “Democracy and Law,” “Nationalism,” “Gender,” and “Sound, Music, and Political Change” had immediate relevance for future leaders of a fast-transforming society.  Others examined topics with wider horizons: “Frankenstein and the Rights of Monsters,” “History, Justice, and Democracy in Aeschylus’s Oresteia,” “Joyce’s Ulysses,” “Poetry for Life in the World,” and “The Trial of Joan of Arc.”  Each course immersed students in the pertinacious intellectual and social conflicts of other times and other places.  Liberal arts curricula have for centuries presented students with such challenges, encouraging self-examination through deeper understanding of the lives of others.  In this way studies of the liberal arts have responded to critics who dismissed them as little more than idle musings. 

Yet the Ukrainian students found such musings welcome for a number of reasons.  It was obviously beguiling to be distracted from the daily reality of bombing, hunger, and cold.  Beyond what might be called education as escape, FUUS courses promoted education as engagement.  Humane ways of seeing the past and the present, and empathetic investigation of human truth, contradicted the tendentious flood of propaganda and recrimination overspreading Ukraine.  

Finally, the Flying University’s liberal arts experience helped overcome the dispiriting isolation keenly felt by students whose formative years were being misshapen by the war.

The long-term benefits of the Flying University resulted not only from the content of the courses and the intellectually open approaches to the big questions they posed, but above all from the formation of communities of inquiry in the online classrooms.  Arising from personal cooperation in intensive, weeklong courses, these communities will fortify students’ spirit in the current dark times and in what we fervently hope will be a flourishing future for Ukraine.

Considered in the longue durée of studies of the liberal arts, the Flying University’s was not so much a unique demonstration of the relevance of the humanities, as it was a dramatic instance of self-examination for life and for fully engaged citizenship.  FUUS courses showed poignantly the value of the humanities in a war zone.  Students gained strength to keep on, despite everything, and, once an independent Ukraine is secure, to rebuild and flourish. 

In this edition of Industry News, the first HBCU to add a medical school in half a century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the health care system in the US, a medical student’s TikToks about racism in health care are going viral, a new report was issued on the identification of skulls of Black people held by the Penn Museum, what the world loses when the arts and humanities are in decline, and Morehouse School of Medicine is starting a program to document and archive the experiences of Black women’s experiences of serious complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

New HBCU School of Medicine

Morgan State University will be the first HBCU in nearly five decades to open a new medical school. The proposed name is The Maryland College of Osteopathic Medicine and it is scheduled to welcome its first class in Fall 2024. The new school will join Morehouse School of Medicine, Howard University College of Medicine, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and Meharry Medical College. 

[Via NPR]


RX Revolutionary

A medical student at Washington State University is challenging racism in health care through the media platform TikTok. Joel Bervell’s video about pulse oximeters not working as equally with darker skin tones went viral, “and the comments were from physicians and nurses and PAs saying that they had never heard about it before.”

[Via Scientific American]


MLK’s Contributions to Health Care in the US

Dr. Aletha Maybank, Chief Health Equity Officer and Senior Vice President of the American Medical Association (AMA), speaking at the recent 2023 R(evolution) Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Keynote Lecture hosted by the University of Michigan, said that Dr. King’s organizing resulted in significant contributions to the American health care system as well as the overall state of health in the United States. According to Dr. Maybank, “Black physicians were often excluded from working in white hospitals during Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, in large part due to the AMA’s policies. . . . [While] the AMA did not take the necessary steps to promote desegregation, the advocacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the National Medical Association, which consists of Black physicians, pushed health equality forward.” 

[Via Michigan Daily]


New Report on the Morton Cranial Collection at the Penn Museum

In a new report, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology said that the number of skulls of Black individuals whose skulls were collected by the white supremacist doctor Samuel George Morton and are currently held by the Museum has risen from 13 to 20. The Morton Cranial Collection came into the Museum’s possession in 1966. In 2021 the Penn Museum began the process of identifying and burying or repatriating the remains. 

[Via The Philadelphia Inquirer] 


Archive of Black Women’s Stories at Morehouse

A new program at Morehouse School of Medicine highlights the stories of Black women who experience grave pregnancy or childbirth complications. Dr. Natalie Hernandez, the executive director of Morehouse School of Medicine’s new Center for Maternal Health Equity, and her colleagues are documenting survivor stories for an oral history archive known as the Maternal Near Miss project. The women’s stories will be shared with healthcare providers, policy-makers and the National Library of Medicine. “’A lot of women felt because they were Black that they weren’t listened to,’ Dr. Hernandez said. ‘I think we heard that in about 80% of the stories that were shared with us.’”

[Via Fox 5 Atlanta] 


The Value of Arts and Humanities

James Engell, Gurney Profssor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature, on the value of the arts and humanities and what the world loses when they are in decline. “Civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights: all propelled by persons deeply acquainted with the humanities and arts. Maria Stewart, Rachel Carson, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, John L. Lewis, John R. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Rose Schneiderman: each immersed in literature, religion, poetry, history, biography, or philosophy—or several of these. . . . By minimizing the arts and humanities, higher education exacerbates the problems confronting society.” 

Via Harvard Magazine