Medicine and humanities shape John Wolf’s career

When most people consider the fields of medicine and science, they often keep them separate from subjects like history, English and philosophy. However, Dr. John Wolf’s career as professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine demonstrates how the humanities can have a major influence in medicine.

Medicine was not the first subject Wolf wanted to study while growing up. In high school, he became a championship debater, had an interest in creative writing and even considered becoming an artist.

Dr. John Wolf
Dr. John Wolf

Influenced by family members who became doctors, he decided to become a pre-med student after graduating high school. Yet, he still wanted to incorporate other subjects he appreciated into his education.

“When I went off to college, I was mainly thinking about what I found interesting,” Wolf said. “The real question for me was whether I was going to be able to continue an interest in these areas while in medical school. I thought about getting a Ph.D. in history and attending law school, but I decided to stick with medicine.”

At Rice University, he chose to major in history and minor in English while on the path to medical school. His extracurricular activities in college included writing for the student newspaper and creative writing magazine and serving as the president of the philosophy club.

Although his undergraduate years did not appear like the typical pre-med student resume, Wolf finds that the humanities have contributed to many aspects of his education and career.

“Medicine is a great career especially if you have alternative interests,” Wolf said. “While your focus is on medicine you can often, if you are fortunate, integrate a humanities background into your medical life.”

Wolf’s involvement in the humanities did not end after his time as an undergraduate. Through the years working in dermatology and academics at Baylor, he reveals how individuals can utilize their interest in liberal arts in the medical and science fields.

While many might not link dermatology with art, Wolf explains how his interest in the visual arts not only influenced his decision to pursue dermatology but also to show others how the field can relate to the visual arts.

“The fact that I became a dermatologist is undoubtedly influenced by that, because dermatology is a visual career,” he said. 

His fascination with art led him to develop a series of lectures about dermatology and the visual arts that entails studying different art forms to emphasize the importance of observation when it comes to diagnosing various skin diseases.

“I draw an analogy between what a clinician does and how it is similar to the work of an art historian,” he said. “The lecture is not just about interesting pictures and dermatological diseases, but it is also about the art of observation. I show a picture of a skin disease, get people to describe it to me and then work to figure out what the disease is.”

Wolf adds that this lecture has led to efforts at institutions like Yale University that encourage medical students to use art as a practice to improve their visual and observation skills to diagnose disease.

Additionally, his interest in English literature led him to develop presentations about Sherlock Holmes and mindfulness, and how one can learn from the famous detective’s ability to focus and use powerful observation skills.

“I think my interest in art and literature has made me a better observer,” he said.  “At first, I was not interested in dermatology, but it has been a perfect field for me because of my interest in art and my interest in the visual.”

With an undergraduate degree in history, he also received opportunities to present lectures on the history of dermatology and to serve as historian for major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology.

“I became historian for many medical and dermatological organizations not only because of my interest in history but because I knew how to pursue historical work,” he said.

Interests in areas like history, art and literature can often lead to work in museums and libraries.

Wolf had the opportunity to combine medicine and his passion for those subjects through his involvement on the advisory board for the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science and serving as a member for the Friends of Fondren Library at Rice University and the president of the Friends of the TMC Library.

“Libraries and museums have always been an interest of mine and I have been able to work that into my professional and volunteer life,” he said. “It has been a great way for me to give back to the community by bringing my skills and interests into those museums and libraries.”

Wolf often tells people that there are two activities in high school and college he participated in out of enjoyment and not in anticipation that it would help his career – those are debating and writing. Ironically, the experiences gained from these activities assisted him in his academic career throughout the years, including writing more than 170 academic papers, serving as an editor of various medical journals and providing lectures and speeches around the world.

He emphasizes how these skills not only improved his writing and public speaking, but how he communicates with others in a professional setting. Along with having a variety of interests, Wolf appreciates how his conversations with his patients, students or colleagues can expand beyond medicine to subjects like art, history and travel.

“I have done a lot of public speaking in my career, and it is mostly because I have developed those skills through debate and public speaking in high school and college,” he said. “Whether I am writing papers, lecturing to a large audience or speaking with a patient, resident, student, faculty or staff member, I think this type of background can improve those communication skills and enable you to talk with people at several levels.”

Receiving a well-rounded liberal arts education not only aided Wolf’s career as a dermatologist and doctor, but also enriched his life altogether. He explains that one of the main methods he uses to prevent stress is to sit down and write a poem or create a presentation about art, history or literature.

“I believe that having a medical humanities interest in your back pocket helps improve life balance and helps serve as a prevention and treatment for burnout,” he said. “My own belief is that the best antidote to burnout is to enjoy everything that you are doing, and I think that this has helped me avoid burnout.”

While many people might believe they missed the opportunity to receive a liberal arts education in college, Wolf encourages medical students and other learners or professionals in a medical or science setting to consider partaking in hobbies or interests in the humanities.

“My main advice is to do what you truly enjoy,” he said. “I think it will not only make you a better student or doctor, but it also improves your lifestyle because you will enjoy those activities and interests for the rest of your life.”

Wolf recently announced that he will retire after 40 years as chair of the Department of Dermatology in July 2022.

By Kaylee Dusang