The interdisciplinary major track in Medicine, Literature and Society, offered under the auspices of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society’s Comparative Literature and Society major, prepares qualified students to explore the biological, social, economic and cultural dimensions of health and medicine in a global and multilingual framework.


At the level of the individual patient, medicine and medical systems diagnose and treat disease to prolong life and to diminish the suffering that accompanies illness.  But in many societies, the reach of modern biomedicine far exceeds the intimate zone of patient and caregiver encompassed by this model. From climate change and food activism to city planning and public housing, from family planning and surrogacy to gendered and racial identities, the biomedical model of health now underwrites national and supra-state policies, corporate ventures, targets of social and political activism and modes of individual engagement.


Students enrolled in the MLS major track work at the intersection of these different forces and discourses, examining the many factors, from the biological to the social, economic, political and aesthetic, that influence health and shape our perceptions of physical and psychological wellbeing. Through interdisciplinary work in fields as diverse as neuroscience and comparative literature, they develop their ability to think critically about the reciprocal relationship between health and culture. The major’s unique focus on the cultural and societal dimensions of health and illness promotes an awareness that crosses disciplinary, regional and linguistic divides.


Situated in the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society, the MLS major track is committed to an understanding of health that is global and embedded in the study of diverse cultures and their languages. Students must be able to read fluently in at least one language other than English, and are required to take courses with readings in a foreign language.


Medicine, Literature and Society educates students to participate critically and humanistically in the expanding array of health-related fields and prepares them for careers in medicine and public health as well as for graduate training in academic disciplines such as anthropology, history, sociology and literature. All students take Introduction to Comparative Literature and Society, a seminar that introduces important concepts, discourses and methodologies in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the capstone, student-led Senior Seminar. In conjunction with the major adviser, they choose an area of methodological or disciplinary concentration.  The program also requires a service-learning or outreach course, which can entail anything from volunteering at the Columbia University Medical Center to collaborating with organizations that promote health justice and activism, whether locally or during study abroad.

Please note that the following requirements are currently under review. Please check regularly this year with ICLS to ensure that you are aware of any possible changes.

Requirements for the Medicine, Literature and Society Major Track  (39 points)

  • Introductory Seminar (taken together with CPLS students)
  • 2-3 courses with a CPLS or CL- prefix
  • 4-5 courses that form the disciplinary/methodological nexus of the student’s interests, e.g. Literature and Medicine; Narrative Medicine; Medical Anthropology; History of Medicine; Comparative Public Health; Disability studies; Neuroscience; Biopolitics; Bioethics
  • 2-3 courses with readings in a language other than English
  • 2 classes in the biological or biochemical sciences
  • 1 Service learning course (2 pts)
  • Senior Seminar – Note, only offered in the Fall semester most years.
  • Senior Thesis (optional) (3 pts)


Relevant electives can be taken in a number of fields or programs, including but not limited to: Anthropology; Art History; Biological Sciences; Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology; Economics; English; Genetics and Development; Health Policy and Development; History; Philosophy; Physiology and Cellular Biophysics; Political Science; Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race; Psychology; Sociology; Ethics; and regional/linguistically-based departments such as Classics; Institute for Research in African-American Studies; East Asian Languages and Cultures; Middle East South Asian and African Studies; Latin and Iberian Cultures; French; German; Slavic Studies; and Italian.


The specific course of study must be approved by the DUS.