Dr. Wald and the Medical Humanities: Shaping the Way Scientists Think About Science

January 3, 2022
Research Archives

By Ivana Premasinghe, published in our 2016-17 issue

Although Dr. Priscilla Wald has many credentials to her name – author, professor, and researcher – if she could describe herself to a stranger on the plane, she would simply say, “I teach”.

Hearing this was slightly surprising. After writing world-renowned novels, one would expect her to mention the word ‘author’ in her description.

However, she went on to explain that in her eyes, writing is a form and extension of teaching. In this regard, she teaches during her time as a professor and during her time as an author. Dr. Wald’s paradigm on teaching and writing is especially relevant given her research and work in the medical humanities. The medical humanities is a complex field that intertwines aspects of multiple disciplines: law, ethics, medicine, and medical technology, just to name a few. Dr Jack Coulehan of the Center for Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Stony Brook University describes the medical humanities as a field that deals both with the art of medicine and the world of “doctoring.”

He describes doctoring as a method that requires, “communication skills, empathy, self-awareness, judgment, professionalism, and mastering the social and cultural context of personhood, illness, and health care” (What is).

From the interwoven nature of many of these topics, it is apparent that this field uses the intersection of these topics to answer many important ethical cases in the medical field. As a researcher in the medical humanities, this is something that Dr. Wald does through her work a professor and an author. Through her research in the medical humanities, Dr. Wald shines light on these different perspectives regarding issues in medicine, law, and ethics, to help people realize and alter their inherent biases regarding healthcare topics.

Dr. Wald’s research interests spiked at the turn of the 20th century, when she researched Typhoid Mary, a disease notoriously named after Mary, a woman who was the first documented  carrier of the typhoid fever in the United States. After being diagnosed, Mary was said to have infected many people, and was quickly isolated and shunned from everyone. Although key aspects of the story- such as the disease itself are fact-based- the narrative of Typhoid Mary is told from a one-sided point of view, one in which Mary is continuously portrayed as a victim. Through reading and researching this unidimensional story and its portrayal, Dr. Wald noted the concept of contagion as a discourse, and became aware of stories and overarching cultural narratives that emerged with the microbe as a vector of contagion. Dr. Wald took to heart a quote by the famous Bruno Latour, a famous French philosopher, sociologist of science, and anthropologist, who contributed a great deal to science and technology studies.

He stated that humans did not discover the microbe, but rather that we invented it. Essentially, humans associate “the microbe” with the following definition: a way in which a communicable disease is transmitted. However, the definition itself was created by humans, who view the microbe through a very specific lens of its function and value. Essentially, we utilize our own perception of an object to create how it fits into our society, although the object itself may have different uses or values. This emphasizes the inherent cultural biases present in our society and the urgency to view events, objects, and narratives from a multifaceted point of view, major concept in Dr. Wald’s work.

In the mid 1990’s after finishing her first book, Dr. Wald became aware of the fact that many of the movies and newspapers spoke about emerging infections, specifically the AIDS epidemic. She again began to inquire about the fascination with disease emergence, which again followed a similar pattern to that of the Typhoid Mary narrative in which stories and cultural biases influenced one’s perception of the disease. In her next book, Dr. Wald traced cultural narratives and sociology, coupling this with the emergence of virology and its affect on the HIV/AIDS crisis. She framed this topic with a discussion of the outbreak narrative, which represented the way in which stories about outbreak were framed and how they transformed into pandemics, such as the AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Wald’s current research interests lie in genetics, genomics, and the emergence of biotechnology as a multi-million dollar business. Her current work in progress, Human Being After Genocide, deals with the mythic narrative elements of medicine and their entanglement with biotechnology. She continues to expand on the role of mythic stories as narratives, arguing that these carry on throughout all of history, and that they engrain innate cultural values in humans. Her current work expands on these predispositions and their influence on the way that humans analyze problems with nature and humanity. These biases carry over to the way that our communities approach ecology, evolutionary science, and. Dr. Wald argues that the scientific and technological innovations present in these fields were accelerated by the world wars, around theories of evolutionary synthesis, robotics, information science, and neuropsychology. She notes methods in which these inventions challenge the conventional way of thinking about humanity and how that, “dovetailed with political challenges of the world wars and decolonization movements that were accelerated fed into the wars.” She notes that in biotechnology, “we are not seeing that discussions of the science are entangled with myth history of humanity.” This issue proliferates to multiple branches of the medical field. For example, she notes the concept of a cell line of cancer cells and taking legal matters to decide who owns the cells. The defendant owns the patent and thus the profits derived from the patent. However, Dr. Wald encouraged us to realize that who profits from the patent is not the question we should be asking. Instead we should ask the question of who does and who does not have access to healthcare to initiate the more ethically-concerning conversation on bioslavery. After teaching a class on this general topic, Dr. Wald soon molded these ideas into her next work, Human Being After Genocide.

When asked what advice she would give students who are interested in going into medicine, she told them to, “keep in mind the power of narrative, language, and image.” She noted that the assumptions we make are shaped by beliefs that we do not know we hold, implying the predispositions within our communities. Exposure to the humanities and critical analysis allows us to have more access to these biases that we inherently possess, thus enabling us to perceive the elements of a story, language, or images as they mirror ourselves. This understanding of our innate biases and analysis of their roots can allows us to see a problem from a different perspective and lead to an eventual breaking of our biases. One of her many examples stems from her research on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, originally known as Gay Related Immunodeficiency. Throughout this time period, there were many inherent biases that doctors would possess if a gay man were to come into the room with certain symptoms. Conversely, if a straight woman were to walk in with the same symptoms, there would be less of this inherent suspicion. Although the doctor may have not acted on this response, it was still present. Dr. Wald furthered her claim through simply name of the disease, Gay Related Immunodeficiency. This name added to the implicit, negative biases surrounding the epidemic. Therefore, the label did not necessarily block the doctor’s view, but it instead caused him or her to see retain some opinions more quickly than others. Dr. Wald reiterated this concept as an important piece of advice for students- to make ourselves aware that we see some things more quickly than others and to work to acknowledge and futuristically eliminate these biases that remain dishearteningly prevalent in our community.

The interdisciplinary nature of the medical humanities involves the researcher’s ability to cohesively utilize and juxtapose information from medicine, law, humanities, and ethics. I asked Dr. Wald for her advice to students who are interested in taking part in such an intersectional and diverse field. She said to, “trust your imagination to do a lot of the work for you.” She elaborated on the necessity of giving things time to come together and to not push connections, but to instead let them surface on their own. An essential piece of advice presented was to give time for the connections to form themselves and to, “be open to the unexpected.” Dr. Wald ended her answer to this question with one of her favorite quotes, “don’t be afraid of chaos, you will come out of it.”


"– What Is Medical Humanities and Why?" – What Is Medical Humanities and Why? N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

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