Media Resource

2018 Jefferson Lecture: Dr. Rita Charon

"What things count as 'real'? What is the status of the things we call 'imagined'? Scientists and artists might think that they each deal with only one or the other of those poles—yet I want to show you how permeable are the membranes that seem to separate them."

—Dr. Rita Charon, "To See the Suffering: The Humanities Have What Medicine Needs," 2018

Dr. Rita Charon delivered the 2018 Jefferson Lecture, titled, "To See the Suffering: The Humanities Have What Medicine Needs," on Monday, October 15, 2018. In her lecture, Dr. Charon meditates on the relationship between art and medicine, and the ways in which the humanities can help us to "see the complex lived experience" of people facing health problems, to understand their suffering. Through lucid analysis of several works of art, Dr. Charon illustrates the practice of narrative medicine and highlights the intersubjective nature of care, where the "meeting between self and other" is"the obligatory site of health care." She concludes, "Can it be that learning how to enter the narrative worlds of our literary texts and visual images can deepen our awareness of patients' subjective lives? Can it be that the humanities not only humanize but make more effective the care we provide to others? It can be." The full text of Dr. Charon's lecture can be read here.

About Dr. Rita Charon

Dr. Charon is a pioneer in the field of narrative medicine, which brings the insight, sensitivity, and awareness of suffering cultivated in the humanities to the practice of medicine. The skills and knowledge developed through rigorous study of literature, the arts, and philosophy--the ability to grapple with paradoxes, to face uncertainty, to expand "what counts as real"--Dr. Charon argues, are crucial in the work of understanding patients, accompanying them, being allies to them as they face the most difficult, uncertain, and trying moments of their lives. She is the founding Chair and Professor of Medical Humanities and Ethics and Professor of Medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In addition to her medical practice and teaching work, Dr. Charon is the author of Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006), co-author of Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine (Oxford University Press, 2017), and co-editor of Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine (SUNY Press, 2008) and Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics (Routledge, 2002).

Learn More

Read an interview with Dr. Rita Charon and NEH Chairman John Peede.

Learn more about Dr. Charon's life and work in her Humanities magazine profile.

View a video of Dr. Charon speaking about the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University.

Classroom Connections

 This Closer Readings Commentary explores connections between the humanities and medicine through Shakespeare. Dive deeper into medical history and questions of the representation of health and disease with this lesson plan about the Black Death, for grades 9-12.