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Novak, M.W. Axelrod, C.D. (1979). Primitive Myth and Modern Medicine: On Death and Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. New York: Macmillan, 1969.. Psychoanal. Rev., 66(3):443-449.

(1979). Psychoanalytic Review, 66(3):443-449

Special Book Review

Primitive Myth and Modern Medicine: On Death and Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Review by:
Mark W. Novak, Ph.D.

Charles D. Axelrod

In the ten years since the publication of her book On Death and Dying,7 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has gained considerable notoriety and much deserved praise for her pioneering work with the terminally ill. Above all she is known among students of death and dying as the medical practitioner who views dying as a process, a series of stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) through which a person passes to death. This now paradigmatic description of the dying process, however, can all too easily distract us from the deeper significance of her work. For the significance of Kubler-Ross's work with the dying does not amount simply to a new description of the dying process, but rather to a radical and fundamental inversion of the rationality that governs modern medical practice. In order to appreciate this inversion, however, we must examine the praxis that follows from Kubler-Ross's description of dying, for only then will we be able to view her methods against the background of modern scientizeda medical practice.

As Kubler-Ross says in the preface of her book On Death and Dying, the book is “simply an account of a new and challenging opportunity to refocus on the patient as a human being, to include him in dialogues, to learn from him the strengths and weaknesses of our hospital management of the patient” (emphasis added). These three tasks, then—inclusion, learning, and above all refocusing on the patient—define Kubler-Ross's approach to the dying person. However, the significance of this approach to medical treatment of the dying can best be understood in light of a fundamental distinction between myth and modern scientized medicine.

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