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JAMA 100 Years Ago
February 3, 2010

IMAGINATION AND IDEALISM IN THE MEDICAL SCIENCES*

JAMA. 2010;303(5):461. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1926

CHRISTIAN A. HERTER, M.D.
Professor of Pharmacology, Columbia University
NEW YORK

The presidential invitation in response to which I am about to address you to-day was welcome to me because it offered a rare chance to express some views of medical progress which I think are too seldom presented to the student. I have in mind the influence of imagination and idealism on the growth of medical discovery. Vividly recalling, as I do, the experiences of my own student days, more than a quarter century past, I fancy you as coming to the acquisition of the myriad facts of medicine with little to tell you of the intellectual forces and historical sequences by which those facts have emerged. If this surmise be correct, it follows that you incline to take a static rather than a dynamic view of the nature of scientific medicine, in the sense that you regard medical lore as something much more fixed than is actually the case. In reality, our science is fortunately plastic, constantly subject to revision of its facts, and ever ready to welcome new interpretations of old facts as well as new discoveries, both great and small. This very plasticity it is that makes progress attainable and fascinates our minds. But our text-books and our lectures are necessarily conservative and dispose us strongly to the notion of fixity of facts, making our minds statical in conception. I would like to dispel, in a measure, this retarding conception by telling you something of the ways in which gifted and trained minds have enriched the medical sciences by significant discoveries. And of the qualities underlying such discoveries I would emphasize especially the rôle of imagination and idealism.

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