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Can an Atheist Scientist Believe in Miracles?


Peering down the microscope, I saw a deadly leukaemia cell and decided that the patient whose blood I was examining must be dead. It was 1986, and I was reading a large stack of bone marrow samples "blind" without being told why.

Given the nasty diagnosis, I imagined that it must be for a lawsuit. Perhaps a grieving family was suing the doctor for a death that really could not have been helped.

The bone marrows told a story: the patient took chemotherapy, went into remission, then relapsed, had more treatment, and went into remission for a second time. Then the slides stopped.

Later I learned that she was still alive some seven years after her ordeal. The case was not a lawsuit. Instead it was being considered by the Vatican as a miracle in the dossier for canonization of Marie-Marguerite d'Youville. No saint had yet been born in Canada.

But the Vatican had already rejected the case as a miracle. Its experts argued that she had not had a first remission and a relapse; instead, they contended that the second round of treatment produced a first remission.

This seemingly subtle distinction was crucial. We speak of the medical possibility of cure in first remission, but not following a relapse. The experts in Rome agreed to reconsider their decision if a "blind" witness would examine the slides again and find what I had just seen.

My report was sent to Rome.

A Lengthy Process

I had never heard of the canonization process and could not believe that the decision would require so much scientific deliberation. Would-be saints need a miracle to establish that they are with God. They also need to have lived exemplary lives documented with evidence in biographies.

Out of curiosity, I read the biography of d'Youville. Born near Montreal, she had established a home for the poor and disabled, a hospice, a soup kitchen, and an order of nuns who founded schools around the world. Her life certainly seemed exemplary.

Time passed. I was invited to give testimony about my report at an ecclesiastical tribunal. Worried about being asked something difficult, I took along some articles from the medical literature about survival in leukaemia, highlighting the most relevant passages in bright pink.

At the end of the session, I left the papers with the investigators. The patient and treating physician also testified at the tribunal. The patient explained how she had appealed to d'Youville during her relapse.

More time passed. Finally, we learned the exciting news that d'Youville would be canonized by Pope John Paul II on December 9, 1990. The nuns who had been promoting her cause invited me to attend the ceremony.

At first, I hesitated not wishing to offend them; I am an atheist and my husband is a Jew. But they were happy to include us both in the ceremony, and we could not pass up the privilege of witnessing the recognition of our country's first saint.

An Unforgettable Moment

The ceremony was in St. Peter's Basilica. There were the nuns, the treating doctor, and the patient. Immediately following, we met the Pope—an unforgettable moment.

In Rome, the Canadian postulants gave me a present—a book that altered my life utterly. It was a copy of the Positio—the bound testimony of the entire Ottawa miracle that had been submitted for review.

It contained the hospital records and transcripts of the doctor and patient testimonies. It also contained my report and the articles that I had left with the tribunal. The bright pink highlighting had reproduced as black redaction. But it didn't matter because references for the articles were complete.

Suddenly, I realized with amazement that my medical work would reside in the Vatican archives. In that same instant, the historian in me wondered, what were all the other miracles that had been used for canonizations past? Were they healings too? What diseases were cured? Was medical science involved in the past as much as it is now? What did the doctor witnesses do and say?

Striking Parallels

Twenty years later and after many trips to the Vatican Archives, I have published two books on medicine and religion.

In the first, Medical Miracles, I analyze 1,400 miracles used in the canonization process for several hundred saints over the course of 400 years. Almost all of these miracles are healings and the majority involved up-to-date science and the testimony of physicians.

The second book, Medical Saints, opens with the full story of my miracle summarized above and continues with an analysis of the modern veneration of Saints Cosmas and Damian—twin-brother doctors, martyred in the year 300.

Their popularity in North America seems to be on the rise. They too are invoked by people who are ill, people who also consult their doctors and take their medicine.

The research uncovered dramatic stories of recovery and courage. It revealed some striking parallels between medicine and religion in terms of reasoning and purpose, and it showed that the Church had not shrunk from science in its deliberations over the miraculous.

Though still an atheist, I believe in miracles—wondrous things that happen for which we can find no scientific explanation.

That first patient is still alive some 30 years after her brush with acute myeloblastic leukaemia, and I cannot explain why. But she can.
Originally posted at BBC Religion. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Yale)

Jacalyn Duffin

Written by

Jacalyn Duffin, MD (Toronto), FRCP(C), PhD (Sorbonne), FRSC, a hematologist and historian, occupies the Hannah Chair of the History of Medicine at Queen’s University, Kingston Canada. A former President of both the American Association for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, she is author of eight books and holds several awards for research, writing, teaching, and service. Her research interests include disease concepts, medical technology, and religion and medicine. She holds fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada (2012) and in the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (2013). Her current clinical activity is in breast cancer, and she participates in an award-winning research project on music memory and dementia. Jacalyn's most recent book is Medical Saints: Cosmas and Damian in a Postmodern World (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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