The Wisdom of Literature in a Time of Plague

PI: Tod Worner, MD

Overview: For as long as we have roamed the earth, plagues have bedeviled humanity. And their consequences have been nearly immeasurable. From emotional upheaval to economic hardship, from unwanted illness to untimely death, infections have shattered and molded what it means to be human. Plagues have also shaped our literature. While it is essential that we consult the latest research in infection control and treatment, we are wise to read classic and modern literature for the profound insight it has to offer. From Camus’ The Plague to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Dante’s Divine Comedy, this rotation offers timeless readings from classic and modern literature. Not only will we study and discuss literary reflections on plagues, but more importantly we will broadly consider our reaction to times of great trial. As physicians and human beings, what is our duty (or vocation) in deeply uncertain times? How are we to comprehend and cope with suffering? Where will we find the profound and subtle graces amidst public and personal calamity? In the end, what does great literature have to teach us? For medical students and clinicians navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, to answer these questions is to better prepare ourselves to serve our patients while sustaining ourselves with the deeper reasons behind our work. Over four weeks, readings in great literature (books, essays, and excerpts) will be assigned weekly followed by small group discussion. At week’s end, we will engage in a large group consideration of these matters which is in one part didactic and another, conversational.

Week One - The Literature of Plagues
Week Two - On Duty
Week Three - On Suffering
Week Four - On Grace

Budget: $10,000

This project is supported by the UMN COVID-19 Medical Education Innovation Grants, which support full-time faculty (educators, investigators or clinical) or P&A educators at the University of Minnesota Medical School to develop education (basic science or clinical) and simulation projects related to COVID-19, more general pandemic-related knowledge and skills, or professional development activities that would be possible during this time of shelter at home.