Skip Navigation Celebrating America's Women Physicians
Changing the face of Medicine Home Physicians
Resources Activities



Dr. RitaCharon

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1949

Medical School

Harvard Medical School


New York

Career Path

Internal medicine
Education: Teaching
Dr. RitaCharon


Dr. Rita Charon was the first recipient of the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Award for Outstanding Woman Doctor of the Year.


My father was a general practitioner caring for the French Canadian Population in Providence, Rhode Island. After being a primary school teacher, a school bus driver, and an activist in the peace movement, I realized that becoming a doctor seemed an ideal way to teach, to learn, and to try to bring about peace and justice. It was also my way of paying tribute to my father.


As director of the program in humanities and medicine and the clinical skills assessment program at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, Rita Charon, M.D., developed an innovative new teaching method. The "parallel chart" system combined literature and medicine together to improve the doctor-patient relationship, and formed part of the only narrative competency course in a United States medical school in 1993.

Rita Charon was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1949. Her father was a physician caring for the French Canadian community in the area, and she eventually followed him into the profession after working as a teacher and volunteering as an activist in the peace movement of the 1970s. In addition to learning from her father's example, she hoped to combine her love of learning and teaching with rewarding and valuable work.

Rita Charon had studied biology and child education at the Experimental College of Fordham University in New York, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1970. Four years later, after her work as a teacher and her in the peace activist, she enrolled at Harvard Medical School. After graduating in 1978, she completed her residency at the Montefiore Hospital and Medical Center in the Bronx, New York.

Since 1982, Dr. Charon has taught at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Beginning as an instructor in clinical medicine, she has risen through the ranks and was appointed full professor in 2001. While assistant professor and then associate, Dr. Charon also completed a master's degree in English in 1990, and a doctorate in 1999. In both she explored the role of literature in medicine, combining her love of both fields.

She has applied her interest in literary studies of medicine as director of the Program in Humanities and Medicine and the Clinical Skills Assessment Program at Columbia University. The program includes the only narrative competency course in a U.S. medical school, based on her "parallel chart" system. Dr. Charon developed the system to train her medical students to better empathize with their patients. To improve the doctor-patient relationship, she asks her students to keep a record of their own reactions to each case, their attempts to understand the patient's experiences, and the ways patients react to explanations and information given to them about their illnesses. The program has been running successfully since the mid-1990s and is highly praised by students involved.

Dr. Charon's respected role in medical education has been celebrated by numerous honors over the past thirty years. In 1987 she was the first physician to receive Columbia University's Virginia Kneeland Frantz Award for Outstanding Woman Doctor of the Year. She was named Outstanding Woman Physician of the year in 1996, and in 1997 she received the National Award for Innovation in Medical Education from the Society of General Internal Medicine.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

It has all been very smooth. I think the relentless duty is the ongoing obstacle, or burden, of being a doctor. Even when you are not officially "on," you never stop being a doctor, if only for family members and friends. The level of responsibility I feel — even in offering what might seem to be trivial advice — is quite steep. So it goes.

How do I make a difference?

I hope I can listen to my own patients in a way that helps them to feel confirmed and helps them get better.

Who was my mentor?

I have two mentors, because I have ended up in two fields. My health care mentor is Elliot Mishler, a sociologist and linguist whose studies of doctor-patient communication taught me that my passion and place in medicine is in its language. My literature mentor is Steven Marcus, who supervised my English dissertation and taught me how to write.

Photo Gallery

Media Links