Health Humanities developed as an academic discipline in the early 1970s by physicians and humanities scholars to integrate humanities into medical training. Courses and lectures in humanities and medicine intersected the science, technology and objective knowledge of medicine with compassionate, attentive care of the patient.
At this time, medical educators and their deans were concerned about the erosion of the doctor-patient relationship, the rise of technologies, the decrease in time with patients, changes in healthcare delivery and a de-emphasis on interpersonal “bedside skills” in the education of doctors. Medical training needed to be directed not just at the understanding and treatment of the disease, but also at the care of the patient. George Engel’s 1977 landmark article in Science on The Need for a New Medical Model: a Challenge for Biomedicine was part of a larger education reforms across the country.
The University of Rochester was among the first medical schools to create a formal Department of Health Humanities. It was founded in 1984 as a natural outgrowth of the school’s signature biopsychosocial model by Dr. Robert Joynt, a neurologist, who was then Dean of the Medical School, and Dr. Jules Cohen, an internist, who was Senior Associate Dean of Medical Education. The Deans’ vision was to solidify the presence of the humanities in the medical school curriculum by applying the materials and methods of the humanities to the study of medicine and doctoring.
Kathryn Montgomery, a PhD in English Literature, was the Department's first Director. Jane Greenlaw, a JD with interest in healthcare law and trained as an RN, was hired shortly thereafter to teach courses in healthcare law, and ethics.
Since 1980, the Department's education programs in the medical school expanded to include required courses, electives and enrichment Pathways in literature, history, visual arts, cultural, gender and disability studies. Concurrently, the courses in what is now called “bioethics” in undergraduate and residency teaching developed into a robust Program in Bioethics. A clinical component was established as an Ethics Consult Service for the hospital.
In June 2012, Jane Greenlaw retired and Stephanie Brown Clark, an MD with a PhD in English Literature and Medical History, became the Director of the Division of Medical Humanities and the Acting Chair of the Department in 2021.
The Department is closely affiliated with the Program in Clinical Ethics which is a service entity of Strong Memorial Hospital and Golisano Children's Hospital.