Guest Post: On the Intersection of Waldorf Education and Medicine

Posted by: Chris Nelson   -   Posted in: News- May 25, 2017 Comments Off on Guest Post: On the Intersection of Waldorf Education and Medicine

By Sam Blackman, M.D., Ph.D.

Sam is a BWWS parent and Board member. Many thanks to him for this post and for his other contributions to our school.

I recently had the privilege of spending an hour and a half speaking to the eighth-grade class at Bright Water Waldorf School.  This wonderful opportunity was presented to me by Nazneen D’Souza.  May is typically my “teaching month” where, for the past five years, I have lectured to undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Washington on topics related to my work in oncology drug development, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with an entirely new group of students where I would have to take an entirely new approach. The prospect of working with eighth graders was, truth be told, a little daunting, and I wasn’t quite sure how to keep them engaged.

Ms. D’Souza’s charge to me was that I should attempt to bring forth the connections that I observed between the sciences and the humanities, especially as I saw them from my current perspective working in the biomedical sciences. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, so the seventeen-year-long course of study that I undertook in science, medicine, pediatrics, and oncology might seem either like a remarkably long detour or my having gotten incredibly lost along the
way to a career in the humanities. It turns out that neither was the case. I gravitated towards a study of the humanities as an undergraduate as a purposeful, equal, and opposite reaction to my father’s relentless pressuring of me to pursue a career in medicine. And I gravitated towards a study of science and medicine—upon graduating from college—as a way of bringing the abstract philosophical precepts and concepts I had been taught to life (as well as a way to avoid certain starvation).  But how could I make this approachable, interesting, and relevant to eighth grade BWWS students?

In the days leading up to my appointment with the eighth-grade class, and only after a number of hours of brainstorming, I happened upon the “thread” that I was looking for—and it turns out it was in front of me all along.  So, upon entering the classroom, I wrote the following list on the blackboard:

  • Art
  • Music
  • Movement
  • Patterns/forms
  • Seasons
  • Languages
  • History
  • The five senses
  • Stories
  • Experiential learning

After spending a little bit of time telling the students about my path, I opened the discussion by asking the class what this list of words meant to them.  The answer came immediately from multiple voices: these were the defining characteristics of a Waldorf education (as seen through the eyes of the eighth-grade class).  I couldn’t agree more, I said, but they also happen to be the aspects of science and medicine that initially drew me in and built upon my undergraduate background in the humanities. And, more recently, the points I listed were the very aspects of science and medicine that are most satisfying to me today, over twenty-five years after I started my journey.  This was enough to hook the students, and with that we spent the majority of the time discussing episodes and anecdotes from the laboratory, the hospital, and from the history of science and medicine to illustrate these points.

For example, while I am a terrible artist in the traditional sense, I revel in the art and beauty of histology and immunohistochemistry to allow us to visualize microscopic anatomy, and the use of confocal microscopy to probe even further into the subcellular anatomy. I encouraged the students to look at the winners of the annual Nikon “Small World Photomicroscopy Competition” to revel in the beauty of the otherwise invisible.  We discussed the ability to use clock drawing to diagnose and monitor neurologic disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease

Science and medicine are musical in so many different ways.  From the high-pitched bowel sounds of intestinal obstruction to the onomatopoeia of borborygmi (the rumbling of your stomach). From the scratchy hoarse voice that comes from injury to the recurrent laryngeal nerve to the “irregularly irregular” drumbeat of a heart in atrial fibrillation and the cacophony of alarms and noises and whooshes and vibrations in a modern intensive care unit (which, by the way, is bad for patients).

We spoke about medical history, and how self-experimentation has led to the development of new techniques and an understanding of the etiology of different diseases.  The eighth graders were simultaneously fascinated and grossed out by the story of Dr. Werner Forssman, who in 1929 put himself under local anesthesia then inserted a catheter into the antecubital fossa in his arm and threaded it up the brachial vein to the subclavian vein and from there into the right atrium. As the first person to demonstrate (albeit in an unusual and dangerous manner) that this was possible, he unknowingly developed a procedure that allowed for modern cardiac catheterization and all of the amazing knowledge that has followed, including our detailed understanding of cardiac physiology and the development of less-invasive procedures for treating heart disease.  We also reveled in the story of Dr. Barry Marshall, the Australian physician who defied all conventional knowledge and proved that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori could live within the acid environment of the stomach and cause stomach ulcers. And he did this by drinking a liquid culture of H. pylori!  Of note, despite the scorn they initially suffered for their self-experimentation, both Forssman and Marshall won Nobel Prizes for their discoveries. 

Finally, we spoke about the use of the five senses in medicine and how important they are in diagnosing disease: from visualizing subtle changes in skin color that can give hints about blood pressure (pallor) or inadequate oxygenation (cyanosis), to the sweet and fruity smell of ketones on the breath of patients in ketoacidosis and the foul smell of an infection with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to the importance of touch in palpating the abdomen or feeling the point of maximal impulse when conducting a physical examination. From the sound of the internal world that you revel in while auscultating the heart, to the empathic listening necessary to tease out a complex medical history.  Of course, students were curious about whether or not you use the sense of taste in medicine, which reminded me of this classic and crowd-pleasing story of the great physician Sir William Osler:

Osler is often called the father of modern medicine, and for good reason. He was one of the founding professors at Johns Hopkins and created the first residency program. Osler was obsessed with the need to pay careful attention to even the tiniest details when it came to observing patients. When he served as medical professor at Oxford University, he lectured his students – stressing the vital importance of careful observation, as it was often the key to accurate diagnosis of a patient’s ailment.

A diabetic’s urine, Osler pointed out, often had sugar in it. According to this apocryphal story, Osler displayed a bottle of urine to the trainees, dipped his finger into the bottle, and brought his hand to his mouth to taste the urine. Passing the bottle around the room, he asked the students to do what he had just done.  The students dutifully participated in the unpleasant task – knowing that if they paid careful attention, they might taste the sugar in the urine. After the students had finished their exercise, Osler said, “Now you will understand what I mean when I speak about details, because had you really been watching, you would have seen that I put my index finger into the urine . . . but my middle finger into my mouth.” (1)

The ninety minutes with the eighth-grade class went by way too quickly for me and ended in a flurry of thoughtful and insightful questions that demonstrated to me how well Waldorf education, and Bright Water Waldorf School, have been preparing our children to journey forth into a world where scientific discoveries are happening at a torrid pace.  In the end, we each learned from the other. I walked away with an appreciation of the sophistication and abilities of these young adults, and of how to make science and medicine approachable for them. The students, hopefully, left with a sense that, as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins so elegantly put it, “science is the poetry of reality.” My sincerest appreciation to BWWS and Ms. D’Souza for providing me with this remarkable opportunity.


(1) Stein, Harold A. The Way I Saw It: Memoirs of an Ophthalmologist. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013.

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