LIT MED's commentary on Open Wound. LIT MED is NYU's Literature Arts Medicine database
Open Wound is a novel crafted from the extensive documents of an unsettling, little-known, yet remarkable episode in the history of medicine.
Author Jason Karlawish, Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, is in an excellent position to understand and write about William Beaumont's research and contribution to medical knowledge. Fascinating as that is, Open Wound takes a greater interest in the human relationships, motivations, cultural circumstance, and ethical complications that fold into the doctor's story: novelistic concerns. As a result, those who appreciate well researched and written historical novels and those who want to learn informally and imaginatively about the history of medicine can appreciate Karlawish's attention to recreating the past.
More significantly, the fictional account engages the ethical imagination, leaving readers to reflect on what to make of Beaumont, St. Martin, and the culture of medicine they operated in. Yes, the doctor gave his patient life-saving care and provided charity, even paying the balance owed on his indenture. But Beaumont benefited professionally and personally from opportunistically turning St. Martin into a research subject, one who was not invested in furthering knowledge about the science of digestion. Yes, the doctor made an important contribution to medical knowledge, but by subjugating an uneducated and poor patient. Do we read Beaumont's robust ambition and assiduous dedication to a goal as admirable personal and American cultural values? Or do we see them as aberrations of the human spirit when success depends on taking advantage of the vulnerable? Does Beaumont's rise from humble origins make him sympathetic? And what do we make of St. Martin? Do patients, especially unique ones, have a duty to participate in a project that will serve humankind? Does St. Martin make an admirable sacrifice or was he exploited? What do we make of a medical system that enlists the poor and vulnerable to benefit others, including physicians and medical researchers? These questions continue to resonate.