|FOCUS ON THE FACULTY
IS NATIONAL EXPERT ON DEATH AND DYING ISSUES
|By Adam Grodhaus
| Just how does someone become
interested in the subject of death, dying and bereavement to the point
of making it a lifetime study? Is it morbid curiosity? Or
maybe it had to do with the death of a loved one?
For College of Charleston sociology professor George Dickinson, a nationally recognized expert in this unique field, it was really none of the above. “ I became interested in this topic from my students," Dickinson recalls. "Back in about 1974, one Friday afternoon one of my former students, a third year medical student, stopped in to chat. I asked him about his death and dying course in medical school. He had a sort of funny look on his face then answered, ‘ We don’t have anything like that.’ About the same time, we had a Nobel Conference at the college in Minnesota where I was teaching. The conference was entitled ‘The End of Life.’ After that, my students in cultural anthropology began to write papers on how different cultures deal with the topic. Those two events sparked my interest in death and dying. So, I then offered a seminar on the topic. The seminar was limited to 15 students, but nearly 100 wanted in the course. Thus, I saw a real interest in this topic. And so it went."
Dickinson's main area of research for the past 25 years has been concerned with end-of-life issues, particularly how physicians relate to patients with terminal illnesses. He has written several books, including "Understanding Dying, Death, and Bereavement," now in its sixth edition. Among other areas, the book, through a sociologist's lens, examines the significance, rituals and customs surrounding funerals and cemeteries. As Dickinson and co-author Michael Leming write, "...funeral rituals allow individuals of every culture to maintain relations with ancestors, while uniting family members, reinforcing social status, fostering group cohesiveness, and restoring the social structure of the society." (from an on-line review of the "Dying, Death" book published by St. Olaf College, Minnesota.)
Other projects Dickinson is involved in include a systematic literature review on physician’s attitudes toward physician assisted suicide and active euthanasia in the 1990s. He is currently working with a physician at the Medical University of South Carolina who is doing an extensive study on African Americans with diabetes. The physician is studying the concepts of “fatalism” and “trust.” Dickinson has also done some work with hospice volunteers over the years. He is also preparing to conduct a longitudinal, cross-cultural study of medical students’ attitudes toward end-of-life issues in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. And if all this wasn't enough, Dickinson is currently in the middle of writing a new book about marriage and family.
Dickinson has been teaching at the College of Charleston since 1985. In 2002 his fellow C of C faculty members selected him to receive the annual Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Award. His primary teaching areas are death and dying, sociology of the family, development of social thought, contemporary social issues, and medical sociology. Dickinson earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Baylor University and his doctorate at Louisiana State University.
“He is a great guy to work with and is an inspiration with his research abilities,” said fellow sociology professor Bill Danaher. “He helped me a lot when I came here.”
Dickinson believes the medical community, especially medical students, should be exposed to more material on dealing with the sensitive subjects of death, dying and bereavement.
"Interestingly enough, at MUSC I have never been asked to speak to the medical students," he says. "But I annually give a two hour lecture to graduate students in nursing who are taking a course in palliative care. Also, I annually lecture in a geriatric pharmacy class of fourth year pharmacy students. I have also given lectures at MUSC to first year dental students and upper division students in geriatric dentistry. I have given talks to physicians and encourage them to be open with their patients and to not ever abandon their patients."