Dr. Ed Fann on the Importance of Teaching Poetry to Medical School Students

Dr. Ed Fann on the Importance of Teaching Poetry to Medical School Students

It’s National Poetry Month. One typically doesn’t think about poetry and medicine together, but for William Edwin Fann, MD, both have been lifelong passions. Dr. Fann, a resident at The Buckingham, a premier senior living community, recently retired from Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) at 92 years of age. He was a professor at BCM for 47 years and taught poetry there for 30 years.

The idea of a poetry class was introduced when, during a clinical rotation, Dr. Fann was instructing his students about the importance of empathy in the practice of medicine and quoted some poetry to them. The verses instantly clicked with the students. After class, the students asked for more extensive discussion of poetry over lunch. This stimulating exchange led to multiple lunch gatherings with increasing numbers of students eager to learn about poetry. Other faculty liked the idea and urged Dr. Fann to begin a poetry class for academic credit that soon became year-long.

“Poetry teaches the importance of empathizing with your patients,” said Dr. Fann. “Feeling compassion for what the poet is saying enhances your ability to empathize with your patients. Reading verses aloud to a group makes you aware of how you communicate with your patients – your tone, the cadence, etc., of your voice when speaking with your patients and their loved ones. To truly understand your patient’s needs, you must be able to empathize with them. I am so fortunate to have had the chance to teach so many future doctors about the importance of compassion through poetry.”

Every week, Dr. Fann asked his students to bring a poem and read it aloud to the class. They would analyze the poem and deduce the poet’s meaning as expressed in the poem. Students not only learned how different persons interpret presentations but also how voice and manner can affect communication.

Dr. Fann received feedback from one than one student with comments such as, “Poetry has been an oasis of humanities during the cold hard sciences of first-year medical school” or “I loved the chance to add something new to my science classes. It has given me an opportunity to become more creative and, I hope, make me a better doctor.”

At The Buckingham, Dr. Fann continues to read his favorite (and new) poets – especially A. E. Housman. Now however, his weekly group consists of residents at the community who come to enhance their own reading and enjoyment of poetry.