Seminar: Medicine & Religion in America

Seminar Description:

This course offered as HSHM S192 during the 2012 Yale Summer Session.
Yale Summer Session 2012 | HSHM S192 | Medicine and Religion in America

The efficacy of abstinence-only education. The limits of abortion rights. The implications of human cloning. The ethics of physician-assisted suicide. The humanity of embryonic stem-cell research. The plight of millions of Americans left uninsured for health care. These issues number among the most culturally resonant and politically charged of our time, and each in its own right represents the expression of a social calculus between medical possibility and religious accountability: a reckoning of body and soul. In a nation whose lore so celebrates free markets, few social institutions in the United States have been so molded by those competitive forces as medicine and religion have. The medical and religious marketplaces, in fact, have been fixtures of the American social landscape since the nation’s beginnings and have left exceptional imprints on its development. Thus, while many today anticipate that the United States may very well stand on the cusp of a ‘biotechnological revolution’ where the cultural intertwining of medicine and religion will gain even greater salience, actually questions of this nature are quite recurrent in the American past.

This course will explore the interplay of medicine and religion in America from the late colonial era to the recent past and in so doing consider such factors as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, regionalism, and medical and religious sectarianism. Students will analyze the common yet independent expressions in medicine and religion of broad cultural movements (e.g., early nineteenth-century Jacksonian democracy) and also discuss the influences of specific developments in one institution upon the other. In this latter context, students will consider why substantial corners of American religion mobilized at times to embrace medical knowledge, as for example Seventh-day Adventism did nutritional science in the late nineteenth century, and at other times to challenge it, as Scientology did psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century. Likewise, similar patterns are evident in American medicine’s engagement with religious beliefs. In the mid-nineteenth century American physicians met religious resistance in their efforts to gain greater access to corpses for anatomical study, which was then an emerging hallmark of their professional identity, but a century later in the aftermath of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study scandal the national commission created to outline basic ethical guidelines for the treatment of human research subjects formally included Christian ethicists. In short, this course will seek to maintain a balance of medical and religious perspectives throughout the topics it pursues.

The course progresses chronologically through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The opening weeks will ground students in professional and popular ideas of medical theory and therapeutics in the periods of the late colonial era and early republic, and one of the guiding questions of discussion will be how disparate groups of Americans rationalized the workings of the human body in a time before the construction of scientific knowledge within the clinic and laboratory. In contemplating the corporeal and spiritual dimensions of this question, students will explore the significances of gender, race, and place because Americans saw states of wellness and illness as resulting not only from providence but also from individual constitutions interacting with local geographical environments. Therefore, they pondered the implications of being European and African men and women transplanted to diverse American climates with native populations. By midterm, the course will arrive at the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when clinical practice and laboratory science transformed American medicine and when immigration changed the face of American religion. Here, students will analyze how these two trends met at the turn of the century in the reformation of American hospitals and the development of the nation’s cities.

Moving into the twentieth century, the course will examine the role of American medicine and religion as the nation increasingly embraced imperial ambitions and entered the Great War. In this latter context students will explore the importance of religious belief in medical humanitarianism and of conscientious objection in military medicine. Moving forward, students will consider the disparate ways in which American religious communities engaged emergent medical knowledge and procedures like the medicalization of addiction, organ transplantation, and psychopharmacology. In their exploration of the historical and cultural processes of medicalization, students will focus on a case study of the medicalization and subsequent de-medicalization of same-sex desire in the twentieth century and how American religious communities responded to both. The course will conclude with a discussion of the medical and religious dimensions of the beginnings and endings of life. Among the issues considered will be euthanasia, artificial insemination, eugenics, induced abortion, stem-cell research, and human cloning.

Students should expect to take from this course a thorough knowledge of the major themes and events influencing the development of medicine and religion in America since the eighteenth century. Within medicine, students will have a firm command of changes over time in fields of physiology, therapeutics, and pathology. Similarly, within religion, students will understand the significances and varieties of eschatology, periods of awakening, and the workings of sectarian emergence and denominational evolution.