Published On Sep 22, 2014
Drawing From Experience
Cartoonist Ben Schwartz discusses the visual side of learning medicine.
Ben Schwartz’s path to cartooning happened by way of a long flirtation with a medical career. He entered college planning to fulfil his premed requirements, dropped that after a year (opting for a psychology major), then returned to the sciences just in time to prepare for admission to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Through all of his studies, one thing stayed constant: He drew.
Schwartz made it all the way through his first year as a resident in internal medicine before drawing comics full time. His work regularly appears in The New Yorker and he illustrated the recently published A is for Artisanal: An Alphabet Book for the Hip, Modern Baby. His career has also brought him back to medicine in ways he didn’t expect.
In 2012, Columbia’s Department of Ophthalmology approached Schwartz about developing a comics-based curriculum for its students. He was later asked to teach in Columbia’s Narrative Medicine program, which helps doctors both understand and communicate the patient stories that might not appear on charts. In both areas, Schwartz shares the grown-up value of comics for doctors-in-training.
Q: Where do your ideas for New Yorker cartoons about doctors come from?
A: A lot about medicine lends itself to humor. There’s a very strange power dynamic when you have one person who’s essentially in a costume, with the white coat and the equipment, and another person who’s nearly naked just sitting on a table.
Q: Not all of your work is humorous. You’re currently working on a comics-based curriculum for ophthalmologists.
A: It’s an area where the medium suits the message really well. What we’re talking about in med school is not all abstract and conceptual. We’re talking about anatomy and pathophysiology, things where the visual information is a big part of what you need to know. You need to know where this organ is in relation to this other organ.
It’s natural to teach all of this through a visual medium. Comics have the added bonus of being told through panels. This helps break down complex content into more manageable chunks.
But beyond that, the associations people have with comics make this very complex material more approachable. As a cartoonist, I sometimes fight against the perception that comics are necessarily “kid stuff.” But as an educator, those playful associations are an advantage when you’re disseminating information to stressed-out med students.
Q: You went to medical school yourself. Did cartooning skills ever come in handy?
A: I spent a month doing an elective in narrative medicine, a subject I now teach a class in. Narrative medicine basically teaches students how to better interpret—and tell—the stories of illness and recovery they will encounter as doctors. I spent that class working on a children’s book. The subject was actually a real downer, a child dealing with the death of a parent. That month, all I did was think about this sad story, and how I could bring it to life. Despite the subject matter, it was my favorite month of medical school. It convinced me that maybe there was a value to the space between medicine and art.
Q: What makes cartooning so well suited to teaching?
A: First, I don’t think that cartooning is so special in that regard. All these creative exercises in our field—fiction, poetry—help students focus on this larger idea that doctors are storytellers. Cartooning is just one route to get to that.
That said, I happen to think it’s a pretty good starting point, with unique lessons.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: I do a whole lesson that starts out teaching artistic perspective and how cartoonists use it to enhance narrative perspective. Students tell one story from the doctor’s point of view, then from the patient’s point of view. They explore the physical angle of the doctor standing above the patient, and what effect that has on the story emotionally. From the perspective of the doctor, the patients might seem fragile, or even pathetic. Then when students think about the patient’s perspective, the doctor could appear heroic, standing above, or judgmental, looking down.
It’s a way of understanding what happens in doctors’ offices. It changes when you think about it visually.