As she is deferentially referred to in the halls of University Medical Center and the University of Arizona's College of Medicine, the 'Ignorama Mama' Marlys Hearst Witte, M.D. has long viewed science as a series of questions. The daughter of the late, part-time poets Frederica and John Hearst, she received her undergraduate degree summa cum laude from Columbia University's Barnard College and medical education at New York University School of Medicine. Her post-graduate residency training was conducted at the University of North Carolina-North Carolina Memorial Hospital, New York University-Bellevue Medical Center, and Washington University in St. Louis/Barnes Hospital. While in residency and attending New York University she was mentored by Professor Lewis Thomas, a man who was, by her account, remarkable in his post not only as a professor of medicine, but also as a poet, philosopher, and writer. In the early 1980s, Thomas wrote that he thought the single greatest achievement in science in this 'most scientifically productive of centuries,' was the recognition of our own ignorance. He said, in a more or less fanciful manner, "I wish there was some medical school in this country that taught a class on medical ignorance."
Witte agreed that medical education was ailing in just that characteristic and by the mid 1980s she spurred that whimsical idea into a plan with momentum, developing the internationally recognized Curriculum on Medical (and Other) Ignorance. This curriculum in essence embraces the idea that the ability to question should not be ignored in medicine. Instead, such skills should be fundamental to the process of discovery and furthermore, should be taught to students directly rather than discouraged. The Curriculum on Medical Ignorance has since expanded its scope in order to address 'medical/scientific questioning' beyond the confines of medical education alone. Witte's Q3 Project, 'Questions, Questioning and Questioners,' targets not only medical students; it embraces graduate, undergraduate, K-12 students and science teachers as well. Additionally, she is developing a Medical Ignorance Exploratorium and Virtual Clinical Research Center, which will allow uninhibited public education accessibility through the Internet.
Dr. Witte is a Professor of Surgery and Director of the Student Research Program at the University of Arizona. She is President of the Ignorance Foundation, Inc. (devoted to all we have left to learn and discover) and Secretary-General of the 44-nation International Society of Lymphology. In her medical practice she specializes in disorders of the lymphatic system, conducts research in basic and Clinical Lymphology; She is considered a leading international authority in this field.
Dr. Witte became the first female tenured full professors in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona in 1974, and in 1977 she became the first woman professor in a clinical department. She has made it a career-long endeavor to support women, underrepresented populations and writers. In addition to her direct work in the medical field, she has worked with many programs to increase the national representation of women in leadership positions in medicine, particularly medical academia. Witte was a Founding Commissioner for the Tucson Women's Commission and a Director of the American Medical Women's Association Professional Resource Research Center and the National Women in Medical Academia Project from 1976 to1984. She served on numerous University of Arizona faculty committees dealing with Affirmative Action and equity issues as they relate to women and minorities. She has mentored numerous women and underprivileged students during her career, led leadership workshops, delivered lectures, developed curricula, and co-authored publications on a variety of women's issues. Witte also sponsors the annual Frederica and John Hearst Undergraduate Poetry Contest, recognizing the efforts of aspiring undergraduate poets and serving as a memorial for her own parents and their love of poetry. Witte once said, 'Poetry is very much akin to science you know, the reading or understanding of either is really a process of discovery.'
Through her teachingÌ_academically, scientifically, medicallyÌ_and as a humanitarian and supporter of many, Witte has in her own right allowed countless others to realize such opportunity for discovery, inquiry and academic growth. Perhaps her work is best summed up in a quote from her Ignorance in Medicine website:
"It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of teaching have not yet entirely strangled that sacred spirit of curiosity and inquiry, for this delicate plant needs freedom no less than stimulation." - Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein
Written By: Jennifer Oas