Poetry and the art of medicine

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.308.6920.63 (Published 01 January 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:63
  1. R Phillipp,
  2. K Coppell,
  3. H Freeman
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 2PR Holborn Medical Centre, London WC1N 3LW London W1H 1RE.

    EDITOR, - Poetry has been likened to medicine in that “like the physician, the poet tries first to grasp, then to control, the reality of the human predicament.”1 In support of this likeness anthologies of poems by doctor-poets have been published, such as Apollo, published by the BMJ in 1990 as part of the celebrations for its 150th anniversary.2

    Doctors have read poems at night to help calm agitated patients; suggested that poems could be included in annual practice reports; and reported that, for research purposes, medical students and doctors could be asked to express their feelings in poetry during or after a consultation. The poetic images that result when patients are invited to write and illustrate poems about their experiences of doctors and hospitals are also evocative; in one study of children's paintings a 5 year old wrote: “This is my doctor he always tickles me sometimes.” Doctors have also used poems for emphasis. For example, in his inaugural address one professor of general practice quoted Robert Burns's poem “To A Louse” to note that “if we as doctors are to respond to the needs of our communities we must listen to our patients' views and ‘see oursels as ithers see us.”4 The chairman of the BMA's council, talking about the health hazards of scientific and technological advances, quoted George Crabbe: “Man who knows no good unmix'd and pure, Oft finds a poison where he sought a cure.”5

    But could or does reading or writing poetry benefit health? Do we or should we encourage patients, or try ourselves, to express thoughts as poetry? In a project with the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe and as part of our interest in mental health and the environment, we welcome comments.


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