Letter From the Dean

Empathy must inform science

Understanding humanity is essential as we push boundaries of medical and scientific knowledge

Pitchforks and burning torches. Angry mobs and terrified villagers. These are the images that spring out of the flickering shadows when we talk about Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s iconic monster may seem like an odd starting point for an exploration of ethics in medicine. 

Glenn Matsumura photography

Indeed, the story of the lumbering brute is more often cited as a cautionary tale about science run amok; the very name of the scientist who created him has become synonymous with unnatural creations.

But as anesthesiologist Audrey Shafer, director of Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse medical humanities program, writes in our cover story, there is much to learn from Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Shelley was writing two centuries ago. The mechanized Industrial Revolution was exploding the social order and many feared where it might lead. Today, medical and scientific breakthroughs are turning last century’s science fiction into our reality. For many, that’s just as unsettling.

Yet in Shelley’s novel, there is no torch-wielding mob. That image comes from the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, who plays a stiff-legged, grunting beast. By comparison, Shelley’s story describes an intelligent creature desperate for companionship and understanding. Indeed, it is through Victor Frankenstein’s monster that readers are confronted with their humanity. It is through this nuanced, complex character that we feel compassion and a deep empathy.

At Stanford Medicine, empathy is vitally important to our vision of precision health, which brings together the high tech and the high touch, and recognizes the uniqueness of every individual. This winter, I’m working with the Rev. Professor Jane Shaw, Stanford’s dean for religious life, to teach a new undergraduate seminar, Literature, Medicine and Empathy, that will explore the meaning of empathy, especially for those we deem “other.”

It is important to note that Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein didn’t create a monster. It was Frankenstein’s lack of empathy, his own inhumanity, that transformed the creature into one. We fail the new generation of scientific and biomedical leaders when we fail to impress on them the importance of empathy. The good news is that this skill is eminently learnable. The sooner our young students and trainees start exercising these emotional muscles, the sooner they will appreciate the complex implications of their work.

We’re living in the golden age of biomedicine. It is an exciting time. New frontiers are opening to us every day, yet without empathy and understanding, we risk becoming a modern Prometheus in our push toward scientific progress. But with a greater awareness of how the arts and humanities should inform our science, and how learning “soft skills” makes for better physicians and scientists, we can confidently push the limits of knowledge to create a better future for everyone.

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