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This page describes our course, the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Selective, offered initially at NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine as a one-week selective, beginning in Spring 2002. Also see our Readings page for reading suggestions grouped by type and by theme.

An outgrowth of our class is the anthology, Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People: Poems, essays, and stories on our essential connections, collecting readings from well-known writers such as Molly Peacock, Lorna Crozier, and Mark Doty, along with pieces from veterinarians and animal lovers selected in an open competition. Selections are grouped into four sections with illuminating introductory essays (Work of the Animal, Hilde Weisert; Animal Doctors, Elizabeth Stone; Passages, Molly Peacock; Imagination Itself, Lorna Crozier). Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and orderable through most local bookstores.


Robert Frost, The Span of LifeAs an educational tool, introducing literature into the veterinary medicine curriculum offers a new means to develop the communication, emotional acumen, and ethical decision-making recognized as crucial to career satisfaction and success. Reading and writing, reflecting and talking, are natural ways to explore issues in working with clients, the human-animal bond, and how to respond to the diverse needs and values of different cultural and ethnic groups.

The value of literature in fostering important clinical skills has long been recognized in human medicine. In 1998, 74% of U.S. medical schools taught literature and medicine, with it being part of a required course in 39% of medical schools. Professors of medicine-literature courses explain that literature may suggest "responses without dictating them, urge behaviors without ordering, illuminate values without oversimplifying them."

We owe a significant debt to, and took much inspiration from, these literature and medicine pioneers and contributors:

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Different course models

One-week daily seminar| Weekly evening seminars

One-week daily seminar

The course we developed at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine was offered as a one-week selective, meeting mornings from 9 to 1, with afternoons for reading and, later in the week, writing. It is organized around themes related to the various facets of a veterinarian's and veterinary student's life. The thematic organization allows for easy adaptability and expansion to different selections. (Some days had multiple themes, but graceful segues proved easy.) As we incorporate new selections, and necessarily retire others to make room, we will maintain a course archives available for further reading. The Class schedule chart below shows the plan for the week.

Course objectives

The purpose of this course is to enable veterinary students to experience literature as a means to:

  1. Enhance understanding and empathy towards clients, other veterinarians, and staff.
  2. Understand the personal connection between clients and their animals and between the veterinarian and their patients.
  3. Reflect on what it means to be a good veterinarian.
  4. Renew their purpose (to remember why they wanted to be a veterinarian).

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Engaging local resources

The personal connection is enhanced by including local writers. Our faculty member, Dr. Greg Lewbart, is author of a mystery series featuring a wildlife veterinarian as hero. Greg's visit to read from his book, The Pavilion Key, and talk about writing in the life of a scientist and veterinarian, has been a big hit, as well as an ideal kick-off for the class writing assignment.

Literature also offers a different way for students to connect with school administrators, who were invited to recommend (and, if possible, discuss) a book that had influenced them. The NCSU Chancellor, Mary Anne Fox, recommended The Microbe Hunters, which turned out to have two pieces every aspiring veterinarian should read ("Pasteur and the Mad Dog,” and “Theobald Smith: Ticks and Texas Fever”). More serendipity: finding a poet had written a sonnet inspired by the book (Harold Witt's "Microbe Hunters"), one writer's take on science and poetry.

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Student writing: Finding your story

We definitely wanted to have our students write, but assuming that some students would balk at "creative" writing, we made this assignment as open as we could. (See Finding Your Story. With our first group, students took us up on this, some working in teams, some individually. Our second group, however, could hardly wait for the writing opportunity and each person wrote and read their own essay or memoir with enthusiasm.

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Discussion Questions and Finding Your Story (Writing Assignment)

In Microsoft Word format:

  • Discussion Questions for each day's readings
  • Writing assignment, Finding Your Story

Class schedule (see the Readings page for links)

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Why a course in veterinary medicine and literature?
The transformation: from past lives to veterinary students to veterinarians Client communication; The human-animal bond; Why write?

Finding and telling your stories:
Being a scientist:
First, do no harm; Dying, death, and grief

Telling your story, part 2; Retaining purpose and joy
Readings in class:
Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, “Language Barriers”, from On Doctoring)
James Herriot, Chapter 2, All Creatures Great and Small
Emily Dickinson, “Surgeons must be very careful”
Mark Doty, “Beau: Golden Retrievals”
Thomas Lux, “The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Stethoscope Song, a Professional Ballad", from On Doctoring

Robert Coles, “Vocational Choices and Hazards” from The Call of Stories
Atul Gawande, “Education of a Knife” from Complications
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark”

Introduced with Robert Frost "The Figure a Poem Makes"
W.H. Auden,"Musée des Beaux Arts"; "Give Me a Doctor"
William Carlos Williams,"Pictures from Brueghel: II. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"
John Stone, "Talking to the Family"

Discussion led by author:
Greg Lewbart, Chapters 1, 2, and 3 from The Pavilion Key: Isle of Buried Treasure

William Carlos Williams, “The Practice”, from On Doctoring
James Herriot, Chapter 14, Every Living Thing
Hugh Lofting, Chapter 2 and 3, Dr. Doolittle
Rudyard Kipling, “The Cat That Walked by Himself
Denise Levertov, "Come Into Animal Presence"; "Her Sadness"; "The Secret"
Maxine Kumin, "Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields", "Eyes"
Hilde Weisert, "Imagination Itself"

Richard Selzer, “Imelda”, from On Doctoring
Lewis Thomas, “Lives of a Cell” and “Germs” from Lives of a Cell
James Herriot, Chapter 1, Every Living Thing
Harold Witt, "Microbe Hunters"
Hilde Weisert, "Guess Work, Scientists, Poets, and Bees"
Denise Levertov: "Talking to Grief"
Molly Peacock, "Fellini the Cat" and "Widow"
Jane Kenyon: "Let Evening Come"
Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle"
W.H. Auden, "Funeral Blues"

Students read their stories
James Herriot, Chapter 4 and Chapter 52, Every Living Thing
Paul de Kruif, Chapter 5, “Pasteur and the Mad Dog,” and Chapter 8, “Theobald Smith: Ticks and Texas Fever,” in The Microbe Hunters
Billy Collins, "Another reason why I don't keep a gun in the house"
Louise Gluck, "Horse"

Day 2 readings
Day 3 readings
Day 4 readings

Day 5 readings;
Participants write a story or poem to be shared on day 5


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Evaluating the results

We used a pre- and post-questionnaire [link TBD] to assess how well the course had accomplished its objectives and (along with discussion and feedback throughout the class) get student opinion and ideas on the course itself.

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