Endowed professorships help Sarah Tracy bring 'bigger picture' to future doctors

Winter 2020

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Historian of science Sarah Tracy holds double OU endowed professorships. She helped create and has led the university’s Medical Humanities Scholars Program for two decades. Photo by Hugh Scott

Historian of science Sarah Tracy holds double OU endowed professorships. She helped create and has led the university’s Medical Humanities Scholars Program for two decades. Photo by Hugh Scott

The words “medical” and “humanities” might not seem to go together, but students who vie for a spot in one of the University of Oklahoma’s most competitive programs would disagree.

They’d be joined by Sarah Tracy, who created the Medical Humanities Scholars Program two decades ago at OU’s Honors College.

“There were many pre-medicine students in the Honors College; our goal was to keep them in state and build a bridge with OU’s College of Medicine,” said Tracy, who holds positions endowed by gifts to the OU Foundation – an Edith Kinney Gaylord Presidential Professorship and a Reach for Excellence Professorship of Honors.

Tracy and then-OU College of Medicine Dean Jerry Vanatta designed the program to examine the world of medicine and give outstanding high school seniors a direct route to medical school. Students admitted to the Medical Humanities Program receive provisional acceptance into OU’s College of Medicine.

Demand for the program is fierce. This fall, 177 high school seniors from 35 states applied. Five were accepted.

“Some students turn down Ivy League schools to come here,” Tracy said, adding honors students not accepted can declare a medical humanities minor. “There are about 70 U.S. early admission or BA-MD programs; OU’s is the only one focusing intently on the medical humanities.”

Applicants have shadowed doctors or volunteered in emergency rooms during high school, and some are already EMTs or certified nursing aides. “These are precocious students in terms of their experiences. They’re often out there on the front lines of medicine,” she said.

Besides pre-med classes, Medical Humanities Scholars study everything from bioethics to literature and medicine and the history of medicine. Students choose the program partly to continue exploring disciplines they love.

“We get students who are musicians, who write, who are drawn to learning languages and cultures. We are all social beings, even doctors,” Tracy joked. “And yet, when doctors are training, they don’t necessarily get access to the bigger picture.”

That picture includes understanding disease in the context of culture instead of just diagnosing conditions, she said.

Tracy’s life has led to the same understanding. Growing up, she lived with grandparents who were on the Yale University faculty. Her grandmother taught dietetics, and her radiologist grandfather had survived a heart attack.

“I was raised in this medical environment that placed a priority on food and nutrition,” she said. In the 1970s, when Tang and Pop-Tarts were considered healthy, Tracy’s grandmother was cooking foods in “The Mediterranean Diet.”

Her own research on the history of medicine, alcoholism, and the impact of culture on food choices has made Tracy the leading expert on Ansel Keys, creator of the Mediterranean Diet, military “K-rations” and principal investigator of “The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.”

Conscientious objectors voluntarily lost a quarter of their body weight to document the physiological impacts of starvation for the experiment. Findings from the famed study were used by the United Nations to assist Europe’s WWII recovery.

Tracy’s next project is a book on the political and cultural history of the Mediterranean Diet, and she teaches an OU course on the subject.

“By the end of the course, my students say, ‘I went to the grocery store and I didn’t buy the Pop-Tarts,’ ” she imitates in a mournful tone that spills into laughter. “ ‘ I bought apples and some lettuce.’ ”