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“History Is In Everything”
09 / 19 / 16 | By: Brian Martin
“History is in everything.” In many ways those are the words Gretchen Case has built her career on. Dr. Case is an assistant professor in medical humanities at the University of Utah School of Medicine where she deftly navigates intersections between the arts, humanities, and science—often using history as a vehicle.
A small, but significant step in that career was an oral history project Gretchen completed for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) while working for History Associates in the late 1990s. I recently reconnected with Gretchen after another colleague passed along a link to her oral history with noted pathologist Alan Rabson. As we caught up, I realized her story illustrated the value and use of history outside the traditional boundaries of our profession and even well beyond the work we do in the history marketplace.
Those NCI interviews launched Gretchen on the trajectory where she continues to combine history, communications, and theater as she contributes to the training of medical professionals. Soon after conducting the Rabson interview, she returned to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to pursue a master’s in communication studies where her research focused on the similarities and differences between medical histories and oral histories. She discovered that there are “all kinds of ideas about how to take a medical history,” and her ongoing engagement with this topic guides her training of medical students. In an era when medical technology provides a growing array of diagnostic tools, Dr. Case encourages her students to refine their soft skills with open-ended questions and empathetic listening to help patients give the most informative medical history possible. She says that a good medical history gives the doctor perspective on “what the patient is experiencing, which is where care comes in.”
From Chapel Hill, Gretchen moved on to the University of California at Berkeley for her Ph.D. in performance studies. Working from the underlying perspective of “all human behavior as performance,” Gretchen extended her inquiry into the convergence of medical and oral history by examining the stories people tell about their scars. Ultimately, her cumulative studies found a creative outlet in dramatic performances which explore the nuances of oral history and medical history in an accessible and engaging way. Performances like Apoptosis is My Favorite Word resonate on a personal level with audiences who share the all too common human experiences of the patients or caregivers woven into the script.
Today teaching is at the heart of Gretchen’s professional vocation. One way she helps guide first- year medical students is by orienting them to one of their assigned textbooks, the Pulitzer prize-winning Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Her introduction to this popular history highlights the active role “narrators” play in shaping the story, the significance of evidence as opposed to tradition in directing medical practice, or seeing breakthroughs in the broader context which led to seemingly isolated events. As the only full-time medical humanities professor she finds herself coordinating student and faculty engagement with other professionals, such as artists and musicians. She also brings vital perspective to such essential topics as the history of handwashing—a story which, Gretchen noted, teaches primarily that “change is hard.”
When asked about the value of her History Associates experience, Gretchen spoke about how the NCI project transformed her understanding of why history mattered so much. She recalled how Nancy Brun, the caring and committed champion of the project within NCI, was essential to preserving the experiences and insights of a generation of medical pioneers. But most of all Gretchen said the work at History Associates gave her confidence—“to try new things, learn the language of her clients and topics, discover the relevant context, and find the necessary source materials.”
As we look back on 35 years in business, one of the more rewarding legacies of History Associates is the small part we played in the lives of alumni who, like Gretchen Case, have gone on to make valuable and fascinating contributions in their subsequent careers. Reminding us, as Gretchen says, that “History is everywhere.”
For our 35th anniversary, we shared insights and ideas on how to use history to reinvigorate the present, ideas for your archives, and creating history timelines. Read more posts from the series or subscribe above to receive automatic updates!