medicine and society graduates

Medicine & Society Program

The Medicine & Society Program was created to address the needs of students who have an interest in both medicine and the greater good of society.  Incoming freshmen are selected each summer to join the four-year program which consists of a yearlong seminar in medical anthropology, a community-based health internship or service learning activity, several courses in medical anthropology, and a senior thesis or capstone project.

The Medicine & Society Program has its intellectual and programmatic roots in the field of medical anthropology, which is broadly defined as the study of human health and illness across culture, time, and location.  Medical anthropologists examine the role of culture and society in shaping experiences with illness.  The discipline seeks an understanding of such wide-ranging issues as responses to health threats, alternative medicine in modern society, the human genome project, the ethics of genetic testing, social and behavioral factors affecting infectious diseases, and the causes of health disparities in the developing world.  Individual health is seen within a broader framework of social networks and the larger public and private efforts to prevent disease and promote health, both domestically and internationally.

For students interested in exploring relationships among culture, behavior, and health, the Medicine & Society Program offers a pathway from the perspective of the social sciences.  Addressing the important social and cultural foundations of health and illness in human societies, this program also emphasizes service and research at health-related sites throughout St. Louis. The success of the Medicine & Society program is derived from the ability of the student scholars to engage with each other and the St. Louis community. Students maximize the impact of the program through fulfilling the three pillars of the program, service, mentorship and research. A recent survey completed by Medicine & Society scholar Alex Tward (AB '22) found that between 2018 and 2022, Medicine & Society members have conducted over 20,000 hours of research, 8,500 hours of service, held over 30 positions of leadership in on-campus groups, and have contributed to over 25 peer-review publications.

Program Requirements

Freshman seminar series

These courses provide the basic foundation in medical anthropology and cultural anthropology for students enrolled in the Medicine and Society Program. The purpose of the courses is to introduce students to the central themes and theoretical approaches employed by medical anthropologists to study health and illness from a cross-cultural perspective. Topical areas include analyses of disease, illness, and sickness at micro and macro levels; the impact of personal and interpersonal factors on health; health effects of social, political, and economic factors; the relationship of anthropology to biological and social science approaches; ecology of health and development; and cross-cultural health studies of language, gender, and race/ethnicity.

Service Learning

The purpose of the internship or service-learning course is to provide students with community health experience. Our goals for the internship or service-learning course are centered on the realities of providing health care to disparate populations and recognizing that providing care to the community occurs in myriad contexts and in various articulations. We hope our students will see the triumphs and struggles organizations face to do public and community health outreach, fundraising, lobbying, education, and so much more. The Medicine & Society program leadership has cultivated several long-term relationships and partnerships with local community organizations including Veterans Affairs, Missouri Eating Disorder Association, and BJC Hospice.

Advanced Seminar: Patients, Politics, and Policy

Through this course, students will interrogate current health related issues including gender, sexuality, politics, policy, and economics, and will also explore how these and many other issues, demographics, and such impact current health and healing related decisions and policies. We will read about and unpack contemporary issues in health care (insurance, big pharma, gender and sexuality, race) and have local experts visit to talk about their practical experience with and in health care. Students will be expected to engage with ethnographic, medical, economic, political, and sociological material as well as current journalism to interrogate the topic.

W. H. R. Rivers Project

Medicine & Society program culminates in a final fourth-year project completed by each student by the spring of their senior year. Past projects have included original research resulting in an Anthropology honors thesis, moderating a panel on international covid-19 response, personal reflection papers, etc.

Medicine & Society social events

In addition to the academic opportunities provided by the Medicine & Society program, students will also develop friendships within their cohort and the greater Medicine & Society community. Informal social events are scheduled throughout the academic year in order to build community and connection.

How to Apply

The application process for the Medicine & Society program opens in May. There will be a link to the application webform on the First-Year Programs homepage during this time for you to sign up.

First-year programs homepage

Medicine & Society Faculty and Staff

W.H.R. Rivers Undergraduate Research Awards

The Medicine and Society Program at Washington University provides a limited amount of funding to support undergraduate student research in medical social science, public health, and related disciplines.  Named after the pioneering researcher and scholar in medical anthropology, the W.H.R. Rivers Awards are designed to help undergraduate students conduct meaningful research projects in the social science of health.  The awards are designed for current junior or senior undergraduate students intending to complete a Senior Honors Thesis or Capstone project in a social science discipline.

Three different types of Rivers Awards are available:

Rivers Summer Award – these awards support student research projects which are conducted over an 8-12-week period during the summer, and which require a higher level of funding due to travel or other significant research expenses.  Students who receive a Rivers Summer Award are expected to complete a Senior Honors Thesis in a social science discipline based on their research activities.  Maximum award $2,500. 

Rivers Honors Award – these awards support student research projects which may be conducted anytime during the summer or academic school year.  Students who receive a Rivers Honors Award are expected to complete a Senior Honors Thesis in a social science discipline based on their research activities.  Maximum award $500. 

Rivers Capstone Award - these awards support student research projects which may be conducted anytime during the summer or academic school year.  Students who receive a Rivers Capstone Award are expected to complete a Capstone project in a social science discipline based on their research activities.  Maximum award $200.

Medicine & Society Program Alumni

A recent survey of the graduating Medicine & Society cohorts of 2013-2015 found 65% of the respondents went directly to medical school upon graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. Current members of Medicine & Society benefit from a large network of alumni. Through the Medicine & Society alumni network, students are able to connect with medical students in order to learn about the process and experience of medical school. 

    Medicine and Society was life-changing for me. It prompted me to seek out opportunities to learn and develop outside of campus, and provided me with a community of brilliant individuals who pushed me to ask new questions and helped me to focus my passion into action. Currently, as a surgeon-in-training at Yale, I see every single day how the frameworks that I learned through Medicine and Society help me to understand what we are doing as physicians and help me to identify ways to care for my patients in the best way possible.

    ―Grace Chao 2013MD, Harvard Medical School Resident in General Surgery, Yale University Medical Center


    If you have any questions or need more information, please contact Erin Coleman, Medicine & Society Program Coordinator

    Email Erin