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Learning to care for human beings: a history class for medical school

Four hundred years ago, families in Japan struggled with the tragic moral dilemma of abortion and infanticide.

Researching this period, undergraduate Brandi Bonfert discovered that ethical and religious motivations, even more than poverty, forced women into the difficult practice many Japanese thought of as a "necessary sorrow." 

Bonfert's presentation at the 2012 Malone Undergraduate Research Symposium sparks important conversations, especially for someone in her degree program. History? Theology? No, she is a Chemistry major who intends to go to medical school. 

Brandi Bonfert

Cross disciplinary research like Bonfert's is lauded by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Now more than ever, college graduates need a well-rounded, whole-person, liberal arts education. As they note on their website, "A liberal arts education is a key ingredient to becoming a physician." 

In addition to future physicians having a solid background in math and science, the website adds, "taking courses in the humanities and the social sciences will help [students] prepare for the 'people' side of medicine. The ideal physician understands how society works." 

A better understanding of society and human nature was integral to Bonfert's Japanese study. 

"Because abortion was so frowned upon and because [it was culturally] important to keep a good appearance, they often kept it secretive," she said. 

In the absence of statistics, Bonfert was left with stories. So rather than relying on formulas and objective measurements as she does in chemistry research, she found herself delving into anecdotal sources like autobiographies, which followed different kinds of natural laws - the shortcomings of human behavior. 

"I had to be awards of the biases, depending on who was reporting the [original] research," she said. 

Autobiography and bias are part of every doctor-patient relationship, too:  understanding the role these dynamics play is is more than a luxury for a health care professional. Personal diseases and public health issues are always part of larger interrelated stories that have little to do with what is considered "hard" science. Experience can be a diagnostic instrument as well as a curative tool in the hands of today's physicians. 

Japanese families four centuries ago were not the last to face questions of abortion and infanticide, Bonfert explained. We still live in a complex world filled with tragic moral dilemmas at the interface of physical well-being, ethics, and social pressure.

Through efforts like the Student Research Symposium, Malone continues to create ways to prepare students like Bonfert to be doctors who care not just for human bodies, but for human beings as well.