Medical Literature: Does it have a purpose?

What is the purpose of medical literature? Is its purpose the same as the vocations of the authors who write these compositions, to provide medical guidance and direction? Is it to inform? Or is its purpose merely to provide an outlet for the people who function as the healers, curers, nurturers of our world to allow their thoughts, reflections, anxieties, experiences, and emotions to become ever-so-slightly tangible. 

If Hippocrates were to answer these posed questions, he would resolutely declare that the purpose of medical literature is to educate and inform.  Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine, essentially began what we call modern medicine.  In the 4th and 5th century B.C. when he lived, the process of healing was an art, not a science.  He laid the foundation for the progression of science into the future.  Hippocrates founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine in Greece which facilitated the study of science rather than of art.  During this era, the documentation of medical findings was imperative in order to inform others who were beginning to understand the value of science and medicine.  The literature was used to provide references and compile breakthrough information so that it could be developed to heal on a scientific level.  The philosophical perspectives and abstract methods in which the healing process had been enveloped could be overturned.  In the Tradition in Medicine segment of the Hippocratic writings, the necessities for medicine to become a science are explained.  One explanation is the following, “…the rest of science will be discovered if anyone who is clever enough is versed in the observations of the past and makes these the starting point of his researches.”   This excerpt describes the importance of using references and previous research to understand the past findings of the medical sciences, while emphasizing the ignorance of someone of refuses to utlize those resources for future research because without a scientific knowledge based on the past, the future experimentation and learning is devoid of meaning, merely a deception.

While Hippocrates may utilize the medium of writing as a way to educate others, Defoe, writer of The Journal of the Plague, creates medical literature as a method to inform others of the reality of a situation that most are not able to relate.  In Defoe’s novel, instead of simply writing a factorial composition describing life during the time of the Bubonic Plague, he chooses to insert a dimension of fiction by creating a narrator who guides the reader through his experience during the Plague.  By incorporation this aspect of fiction, the reader is able to understand the thoughts, understandings, and emotions of the narrator.  The narrator, in a way, is a liaison between the audience and every person affected by the Plague because we are able to understand the rational used in order to survive.  The narrator had to decide whether to leave his parish to go to an area which was not affected by the Plague and give up his business, which was all he had and a testament to all of his hard work, or to stay and risk his life to die.   There was also his constant thinking of religion, God, and God’s will.  When the narrator’s one opportunity for him to leave fell through, he understood that as God’s will that he was to remain in the area and not leave.  Ultimately, The Journal of the Plague, is an informational work of fiction which allows the audience to become more knowledgeable about the dire reality of the Bubonic Plague and how life was during that time.  

Still, are there more purposes for medical literature? William Carlos Williams essay, The Practice, demonstrates that writing is just an aspect of his vocation that is just as important as the physical practicing of medicine.  He writes, “…they are two parts of a whole, that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”  While the practice of medicine is physically fatiguing to Williams, the art of writing is rejuvenating.  When he writes, there is no other purpose for him but to write, to attempt to put into words what he experiences in his day-to-day life as a physician.  Williams also writes that the craft of writing is premium only during a few rare moments in life every couple hundred of years when these words can be formulated into a “few gifted sentences,” to form a poem.

In conclusion, does Medical Literature have one distinct purpose? The answer, no, but in general, medical literature the creation of a tangible work that regardless of specific purposes can reach future generations to give insight and exist for someone who may want to read medical literature for any of its purposes described above or for the many other purposes in which medical literature is written.

Lee Goatley


About Lee

I am a collegian who is in the process of deciding whether or not to pursue a career in the medical field. Because of the enormity of this pending decision I am going to utilize this blog as a medium for reflection and rationalization. I will combine two of my passions, literature and science into a blog. The content of this blog will be stimulated by medical literature that has been written throughout the ages.
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One Response to Medical Literature: Does it have a purpose?

  1. I agree that there are many permutations of what we are calling “medical literature.” Some scholars have even read patient charts as literary texts that reveal the mind of the physician and his or her interpretation of the patient’s story. The broad sweep of your post pulls together Hippocrates, Defoe and Williams in a way that highlights the different motives for writing about health, illness, and medicine. Hippocrates and Defoe were disseminating information–one for the professional medical class, the other for lay people who needed to understand the plague. Williams suggests that he is writing for himself, to “rest” and to find the greatest poetry in the world.

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