Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Our medical school took the bold step of assigning Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies as required reading for all entering medical students. I recently had the pleasure of leading two small group discussions about the book and commenting on the students' reflection papers. I was absolutely delighted by the students' engagement with the book and by their reactions to it--as were my fellow discussion leaders. Many of the students had read the book more than once. Although they were often initially drawn in by the stories of heroism and conquest, nearly every student came away with understanding of the far more complex world of medicine--and cancer--that it is Mukherjee's goal to portray. They engaged with his discussions of the social context of medicine and the need for cooperation. They discussed the complexities of research ethics raised by experimental treatments and phase 1 trials. They expressed the hope that they would be able to establish the kind of relationships with patients that Mukherjee weaves through his accounts of the science. Some were surprised by how much science they learned from reading Emperor, too. And they were deeply impressed by his sense of the uncertainties and limits of medicine.
Ours is, to be sure, one medical school. But our experience as discussion leaders was so overwhelmingly positive that I suspect other medical students might benefit from the experience. And I profoundly wished that I had had the opportunity to discuss the book with a mixed group of law students and medical students.