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Tricia Starks, professor of history in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, will explore how medical abuse has persisted and flourished in the modern era in an upcoming preview lecture titled “Bad Medicine.” The lecture will take place at 5:15 p.m. Monday, March 6, in the Gearhart Hall Auditorium. The lecture is open to the campus and community.

The concept of “bad medicine” summons up visions of medieval bleedings, blisterings, cauterizations and other practices where doctors failed to follow the Hippocratic dictum to “first do no harm.” However, the abuse has continued into the modern era, from the overprescription of opioids to the unequal treatment of patients based on race and gender.

“In the past hundred years, we’ve seen a triumph in public health — we’ve come a long way,” said Starks, who is also the director of the Arkansas Humanities Center. “But there have also been times when medicine goes bad.”
Starks’ lecture will preview her Fall 2023 Honors College Signature Seminar, “Bad Medicine.” Please fill out this online interest form before the lecture. 


Many popular conceptions of modern medicine highlight its triumphs and the vast benefits gained through ongoing scientific progress. While these improvements aid patients today, these benefits are not shared equally by all members of society, remaining out of reach to many.

“I want students to understand how our society and culture measure how much benefit of medicine is given to each person,” she said, noting how socioeconomic factors like race, class and gender have and continue to impact the patient care many communities receive.
In addition to studying inequities in the medical field, Starks’ course will also confront a number of the malicious and regrettable instances of treatment found in the recent past.
“We discuss the horrors of diseases that were made fanciful to control people, hysteria being a great example of this in the 19th century,” she details. “We discuss how medicine often enslaved rather than freed people, and look especially at enslavement and how medical doctors conceptualized the African American body in ways to further the institution of slavery.”

Starks points out that histories of exploitation inform ongoing distrust in the medical system today. Knowing about these experiences and why some may be fearful of medical settings helps identify potential stumbling blocks for some public health initiatives.
“I think it's important for our students to understand how things that we see as unqualified goods might be understood in different ways from different groups,” Starks said.


To help prepare future doctors and practitioners, Starks sees real value in offering medical humanities courses like “Bad Medicine” where students closely examine the field’s history.
“We've found in studies that those students will go on to be more empathetic practitioners and also suffer less burnout,” she explains, noting that the discussion-based format of the seminar creates an intimate setting for unpacking such heavy topics.
Given the course’s sobering subject matter, Starks also notices the powerful learning that occurs throughout class discussions when students unpack histories behind issues including sterilization, eugenics and euthanasia. 

“These are difficult topics, these are distressing concepts, and they are often hard to make it through.” At the same time, students experience transformative encounters with the material. “The class has these amazing moments of enlightenment,” Starks points out.
Additionally, she hopes students come away from the course feeling comfortable with failure. 

“So often we talk about medicine as standing on the shoulders of giants, as having these people come before us that did so much,” she said. “While most scientific histories point to the many triumphs, the impediments to progress along the way, particularly those that have caused harm to patients, are less likely to be highlighted.

“If we don't learn about those failures, it makes it so much harder to try to strive to do something different because you're on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “To fall from there is so much worse than to stumble in real life."

By helping students understand that failure is a significant part of medicine, she hopes it frees them to try and fail at different points in their future careers, knowing that this process is the way forward.
Starks joined the history department at the U of A in 2000 and has taught courses in the history of medicine, world history, Russian and Soviet history, and gender history. Starks is a member of the U of A Teaching Academy and has been named a Master Teacher in Fulbright College and a Student Alumni Board Teacher of the Year.

Starks’s primary area of expertise is the history of medicine in Russia and the Soviet Union. She is the author of Cigarettes and Soviets: Smoking in the Soviet Union (Northern Illinois 2022); The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State (Wisconsin 2008); and Smoking Under the Tsars: A History of Tobacco in Imperial Russia (Cornell 2018). As director of the U of A Humanities Center, Starks helps promote humanistic scholarship and inquiry, innovative and interdisciplinary teaching, and humanities scholarship to the wider community.


Bad Medicine is one of three Honors College Signature Seminars scheduled for fall 2023. Other topics to be explored include Teeth — taught by Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics PhD Program — and Good Medicine, taught by Jamie Baum, director of the Center for Human Nutrition and associate professor in the Department of Food Science, and Erin Howie Hickey, associate professor of exercise science in the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation.

Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program, and those selected to teach will become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College.  

Honors students must apply to participate, and those selected will be designated Dean’s Signature Scholars. The course application is posted online on the Signature Seminars web page. The deadline to apply is Friday, March 31. 


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