Unalterable Testimony: Aesthetic Experience in Poetry and Medical Practice





The interplay of art and medicine is centuries long. In contemporary medical education, “arts and humanities” relevant to medical practice are often instrumentalized and justified in curriculum to “improve” training, increasing empathy, for example. The aesthetic pleasure of engaging with art is less considered. In this essay, as a family physician, I reflect on my aesthetic experience of poetry as a gateway to consider the possibility of aesthetic experience in clinical practice. As I tarry with language in a poem, new horizons of understanding are extended. In a similar way, in clinical practice, when I allow my senses to experience a patient aesthetically, be it by seeing, smelling, touching, I can enter a new appreciation of their personhood. Using a combination of poetry and visual art, I draw on an example of an older man, unstably housed, to elucidate how experiencing arts and humanities in medical practice can answer what Gadamer called the first task of medicine, that is to restore a person to their original state.

Author Biography

Dr. Martina Kelly, University of Calgary

Dr Martina Kelly is a family physician and professor in the Dept of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, where she oversees family medicine teaching in the undergraduate medical program.  Her research seeks to deepen understanding of how doctors and patients encounter each other in consultations, with an emphasis on embodied interactions and nonverbal communication such as touch.  Methodologically she draws on ideas from humanities, and hermeneutic philosophy to help tease out and draw attention to small moments which can have profound impacts on patient care.