Historian: Religious Faith an Important Part of a Patient’s Experience

Janet Golden

Janet Golden

Although medicine and religion often intersect when people cope with illness or death, religious faith receives little attention from medical historians. A Rutgers–Camden scholar says that’s a mistake.

“One of our jobs is to try and understand the patient experience, or the family experience, at death,” says Janet Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers–Camden. “We’ve done a very good job at looking at the science, the procedures, and issues of pain and suffering, but we have not done a good job of understanding the role religion plays in the lives of patients.”

In her newest article, “Modern Medical Science and the Divine Providence of God: Rethinking the Place of Religion in Postwar U.S. Medical History,” Golden thoughtfully analyzes letters from parents who are coping with the death of a child to understand the role religion has played throughout medical history.

The article was co-written with Emily K. Abel, a professor emerita of health policy and management and women’s studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. It appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

Golden says religious faith must be understood to “open up new pathways in modern American medical history.”

“Religion to some people offers a kind of solace and understanding that after death, one goes to a better place,” she says. “For others, it’s a way of saying they knew medicine couldn’t provide a cure because only God has control over life and death.”

In the article, Golden seeks to understand how patients and families use religion to make sense of their experiences, to cope with death, and to understand the limits of modern medicine.

For her research, the Rutgers–Camden medical historian studied letters written to John and Frances Gunther after the publication of John Gunther’s 1949 memoir Death Be Not Proud, which chronicles the couple’s son’s battle with brain cancer. The letters came from parents who also experienced the death of a child.

“The deaths of children challenge parents with fundamental existential questions that lead many to seek answers through religious faith,” Golden writes.

While many Americans gained optimism in medical science after World War II, Golden says medical historians rarely note that religious faith also flourished and parents turned to both physicians and clergy while their children faced fatal illnesses.

“There is a complete range of experiences,” she notes. “Sometimes, children are more religious than their parents during this time. There is a belief that God could minimize suffering. Parents find comfort in believing there is an afterlife.”

Golden says that throughout the postwar period, faith and religious practice shaped children’s experiences of dying. She believes the topic has received little attention from medical historians because either faith is regarded as a personal matter, or it is not chronicled in medical literature.

However, Golden says understanding religiousness in times of death will lead to a greater understanding of how patients and families responded to illness in the 20th century.

“Medical historians seeking to understand fully the patient’s experience of illness…must integrate an understanding of religious experiences and faith into their work,” she writes.

Golden specializes in the history of medicine, history of childhood, women’s history, and American social history. She is the author or editor of nine books, and the author or co-author numerous peer-reviewed articles.

Her most recent books include Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard University Press, 2006) and Healing the World’s Children: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Child Health in the 20th Century (McGill-Queens University Press, 2008), for which she was a co-editor.

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