The Department of Humanities at Penn State Hershey has been a model for other medical schools. Founded in 1967, the College of Medicine is young by medical school standards. But it’s also a pioneer as the first U.S. medical school with a Department of Humanities, a fixture since its inception. “This department has really been a springboard for founding other kinds of programs and centers and departments in many medical schools across the country,” says Philip Wilson, Ph.D., historian of medicine and science and professor of humanities. “What was first a curiosity became an awakening.” The founder of the Department of Humanities is considered a pioneer in humanistic medicine—E. A. Vastyan, who died in 2010 in Harrisburg. Vastyan was an Episcopal priest and chaplain at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when founding Dean, George Harrell, recruited him to Hershey. “The fact that this institution was founded with a humanities department is one piece of data to support that that mission has been incorporated into the heart of the place from the start,” says Dan Shapiro, Humanities Department Chair.
At the time, bioethics and medical humanities were curiosities in medicine. Vastyan then recruited K. Danner Clouser and Joanne Trautman Banks, whom, as former department chair David Barnard, Ph.D., J.D., relates, became the first philosopher and English professor, respectively, to have fulltime appointments at a U.S. medical school. “They were the stalwarts who really created the concept,” Barnard says. . . . “The fundamental concept which continues to be valid, is the experience of caring for sick people is much more than the application of science and technology,” Barnard says. “It’s also about engaging the importance of the personal human experience of being sick and that involves peoples’ values, their sense of personal identity, religious belief, or absence of religious belief.”
As in real estate, location of the medical school also makes it unique, according to David J. Hufford, Ph.D., University Professor Emeritus and acting chair and chair of humanities at Penn State Hershey from 2002 to 2007. “In many medical schools the contribution from the humanities is offered part-time by people who are full-time in the Department of Arts and Science, because the medical school is on a campus surrounded by humanities and science faculty,” Hufford says. “Hershey is not, and while that presents some challenges, I always felt that it was a very positive thing. It meant that anybody who came to Hershey and stayed must be doing it because they want to work in medicine.”
Excerpted from Richard M. Kirkner
“The Department of Humanities: Once a ‘curiosity,’ now an ‘awakening’,”
Penn State Medicine (2012)