Natural Magic

A medieval-style painting of two nude figures, one facing forward and one facing backward, circled by an oval-shaped zodiac calendar.

Modern medicine is magic. Do we mean that literally or metaphorically? Well, yes and yes. For example, a key ingredient in some chemotherapy formulas for cancer—yew—was also an ingredient in the witches’ brew described in Shakespeare’s Macbeth along with “eye of newt and toe of frog.” Yew’s potent and unusual properties have been known to healers and wizards for centuries. Writing professor and author Ellen Wayland-Smith explores the medicine/magic connection more deeply while discussing her own cancer treatment in this March 2021 essay from American Scholar.

Read it here.


1. The central topic of Wayland-Smith’s essay is her experience with cancer and chemotherapy. Could she have conveyed the same sensations and ideas without delving so deeply into the history of Western medicine? What, if anything, would be missing from your appreciation of her condition if she had written only of her present situation and omitted the historical content? Explain how you arrived at your response, and point to specific examples from the essay to support your ideas.

2. The first time Wayland-Smith mentions Cancer, the arrangement of stars in the sky, she uses the term “constellation” in its literal sense. Later on, she uses the term again—once in a simile and once with a metaphoric meaning. Identify and describe the two figures of speech involving the image of a constellation. How do you view her multiple uses of “constellation”? Rhetorically effective? Confusing? Stellar? Excessive? Something else? Explain the reasons for your assessment.

3. LET’S TALK. As a 21st century college student, you’ve likely been taught to think of science and magic as opposite and incompatible realms. How does the information in Wayland-Smith’s essay challenge that conventional divide? Team up with a few classmates to explore the following questions: What features of “magic” are incorporated in today’s medicine? What observations made by the ancient people that Wayland-Smith mentions might be considered “scientific” by today’s standards? How does Wayland-Smith demonstrate reconciliation between those two seemingly opposite bodies of knowledge and practice? How does she put her reconciliation to use in her cancer experience? Listen carefully to your classmates’ ideas in order to gain insights that you might not have come up with yourself.

4. AND NOW WRITE. Wayland-Smith highlights the role played by illness in being able to perceive herself as a small unit within a much larger fabric of life. What, if anything, stimulates you to feel that you and your body are part of the universe, part of something much larger than yourself? How do you view yourself as an actor in some larger drama of space and of time? Whew! These are big questions! Start with a small reflection, any small corner, and write an essay that begins to address your place in the universe. You may want to use Wayland-Smith’s essay as a springboard for ideas or a starting place for reflecting on your own situation.

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