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An Art Historian Brings STEM Students to Humanities

Carla Yanni shows the link between medicine and architecture

Carla Yanni portrait 2021 jan 15


Carla Yanni, a professor of art history, has a knack for coming up with humanities courses that appeal to STEM students.

Her “Introduction to Architecture” course, for example, has long drawn Rutgers University undergraduates from across the sciences and the business school.

“They really respond to it,” Yanni said. “And I think that’s because they experience firsthand how humanities foster a deeper connection to real world issues.”

Now Yanni is teaching a new course in the emerging field of medical humanities, providing students an intriguing perspective on the rise of modern medicine, and giving premeds in particular a lesson in healthcare that they might not encounter at medical school.

wells memorial hospital 1908 barrood collectionThe course, “Architecture and Medicine: A History,” looks at the emergence of hospitals, asylums, and other institutional buildings from the 1700s to the present, using the lens of architecture to explore medical history from cholera to the coronavirus.

The course was introduced in fall 2020 as an interdisciplinary seminar for students in the Rutgers Honors College and the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program (SASHP). It’s available for art history majors this semester, with Yanni and a professor from Johns Hopkins University co-teaching.

“Do you want to study or practice healthcare?” Yanni asks students in the introduction to the first class. “How does architecture help or hinder the practice of medicine? What kind of places do you envision yourself working in?”

Mann PatelThose questions piqued the curiosity of students like Mann Patel, an SASHP junior who will begin medical studies at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School next year under a BA/MD program.

“I knew about the different aspects of medicine, from public health to research to the clinical,” Patel says. “But here was something that went beyond that realm—this idea that architecture and design shapes the interaction between patients and the doctors.

“I thought that was really compelling.”

Helen Gao, also premed, agreed.

“The seminar made you dive deeper into things you wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to,” says Gao, an Honors College junior who worked in the intensive care unit at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center. “When I worked at the hospital, I found myself asking: ‘why are they set up in this particular way and how has that evolved over the years?”’

The final project gave students an opportunity to explore a particular connection between medicine and architecture.

Gao wrote her paper on an unusual but little-known chapter in modern medicine: The story of Martin Couney, the American pediatrician who set up exhibits of premature babies at places like Coney Island in the early 20th century. At the time, there were no treatment facilities for premature babies. Couney would raise money for their care through admission fees at the exhibits.

Helen Gao

“People would come look at the premature babies in their tiny incubators—it would be a form of entertainment,” Gao says. “But a lot of parents were grateful, and eventually there was a realization that premature babies needed a formal healthcare setting.”

Her project was aptly titled: From Amusement Parks to Hospitals: Evolution of the Neonatal Care Setting in the US.

Patel, meanwhile, focused on the modern hospice movement, particularly the home-based hospice that emerged during the early years of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

“At the time, they were literally expecting one death every 30 hours,” Patel says. “In some facilities, AIDS patients were not allowed to have visitors; food was left outside their door; bed linens weren’t changed.”

Home-based hospices provided dignity, and reconnected AIDS patients to the community, which soon helped demystify the disease and rally support.

“There was a long-term impact,” Patel said. “The increasing community acceptance led to support for research and the medical advances that led to treatment.”

Humanities foster a deeper connection to real world issues

Other students did projects on field hospitals during the Civil War and World War II and the emergence of luxury plastic surgery hospitals in Seoul.

Yanni, whose research specialty is the social history of architecture from 1750 to the present, has long explored the connection between medicine and architecture. She is the author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States.

“I wanted to bring STEM majors into the humanities in one way or another,” Yanni says. “And I think this course really drew their attention.”