By Sabrina Hanna
Medical students at McGill today play a key part in the future of health care not only in Quebec, but across the globe. In the legacy and spirit of clinician, humanitarian and teacher William Osler, the Board of Curators of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, together with the McGill Medical Students’ Osler Society, invited students from the Faculty of Medicine last year to explore the historical, ethical, social and humanistic side of medicine through a new essay contest. The objective of the contest is to provide students with the opportunity to explore any theme of interest to them in the history, social studies, sociology, ethics and humanities of the health sciences. It also provides them with the chance to be mentored by an expert in their topic drawn from the Library’s Board of Curators or elsewhere to complete their project, and to use the rich resources of the Osler Library and other libraries at McGill. .
The first year of the essay contest saw 20 initial proposals submitted. Eight entrants wrote 3,000 word essays on a variety of topics, from which three finalists were selected and asked to present their essays on Osler Day, November 6, 2013.
The finalists were assessed on the basis of the argument and the quality of the essay. Prize money, funded by the Osler Library Board of Curators, was awarded to the top three essays. $1,000 and the Osler Board of Curators medal went to the first place winner, $500 second place and $250 was presented to the third place winner. The winner was announced at the annual Osler banquet, held on November 6th, International Osler Day.
First prize winner Jennifer Pors’ essay, entitled “Blood Ties: A History of Blood Transfusion” looked at blood transfusions throughout history. Mentored by Professor Faith Wallis, the third year medical student explored how blood transfusions progressed from its beginnings to modern times and the social perceptions around the sharing of blood. “I wanted to learn more about the connection between blood and identity, now and throughout history,” says Jennifer. “Our academic curriculum can be quite concrete and reductionist and researching this essay deepened my understanding of aspects of the curriculum by exposing me to the rich history of medicine. This was a very valuable and rare opportunity to connect to the humanities of medicine.”
Julia Hickey, a 2nd year student, took the second prize of $500 with her essay “The Predominance of Osler’s Humanism in the Practice of Palliative Care”. Mentored by Mrs. Eve Osler Hampson (Member of the Osler’s Board of Curators) and Dr. Tom Hutchinson, Julie presented on the history of palliative care, including the introduction of an Oslerian humanism to dying patients and the beginnings of palliative care as a speciality. Julia noted, “I found it interesting that it took so long for the speciality of palliative care to become part of mainstream medical practice, as death is omnipresent in the practice of medicine and whether the same values that Osler imparted hold true today as physicians care for dying patients.”
Mentored by Dr. Jonathan Meakins of the Board of Curators, second year student Susan Mengxiao Ge took the third prize of $250. In her essay “Observation: The Importance of Art in Medicine”, the second year med student discussed how a well-rounded education, including an education in art, could be helpful in treating patients in a clinical setting. Her work looked at how artists depicted conditions before diseases had even been identified by the medical community, and why the practice of observation is important to the field of medicine. Reflecting on the process Susan said, “this essay gave me an opportunity to learn to use and explore the knowledge tucked away in the Osler Library. It has taught me much about the importance of soft skills in medicine, skills that cannot be learned in class lectures, such as observation. Working with my mentor has given me a new perspective; he has mentored me in so much more than just my topic. He has shown me that studying medicine does not mean I have to give up my other passions and that there is time to do both medicine as well as continue learning about the things I love. Most importantly, I learned that if you truly want something, there is always a way to reach those aspirations”.
Chris Lyons, Head Librarian at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine was delighted by the enthusiasm for the contest in the first year. “Given that this was the first year, I think that this was a success because the students really enjoyed the chance to explore a topic of interest to them that they would not have had the chance to do otherwise. Both the library and the mentors played a key role in this. Osler himself believed that students should have a broad perspective in their understanding of medicine, and this contest is something he would certainly have approved of.”
All three winning essays, plus the students’ reflective essays, are available on the Osler Library website here.
Information on the 2014 essay contest can be found online here.