When Doctors Write

Having recently read, and been moved by, works by Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, and Abraham Verghese, I thought of a little stroll through the literature that has been written by doctors. An interesting and spiritual relationship, the work of healing and the creative work of the spirit—or so I thought. I soon discovered, though, that this interesting literary subset was bigger, stranger, much more powerful and complicated than I had ever imagined. Herewith, an account of my journey…

Among the most satisfying books I have ever read is Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die

Everyone wants to know the details of dying, though few are willing to say so. Whether to anticipate the events of our own final illness or better to comprehend what is happening to a mortally stricken loved one… we are lured by thoughts of life’s ending… We are irresistibly attracted by the very anxieties we find most terrifying; we are drawn to them by a primitive excitement that arises from flirtation with danger. Moths and flames, mankind and death–there is little difference.” (intro., p. xv)

This book spoke to me at a very difficult time, and I love it still. But are all such doctor’s writings similar? No-o-o. Just think ‘Michael Crichton: rhymes with frighten’ or Mikhail Bulgakov, eminent physician authors, or Robin Cook, or Alex Comfort, for goodness’ sake, or Alan Nourse—physicians all, authors of no very soothing or reassuring works. In fact, for every Atul Gewande, there is apparently a Stanislaw Lem, for every Frank G. Slaughter, a Somerset Maugham—for every Albert Schweitzer, a Frantz Fanon. Ethan Canin, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline

There seems, and this is a kind of a disappointment to me, to be nothing about the discipline of medicine that predestines an author to be humane, or caring, or even very accessible. Physicians, driven by whatever creative forces, are just like other authors. Great, transforming, but also ordinary and sensational—or in the case of Céline, mean and nasty.
I direct you to Literature, Arts & Medicine Database, a  very interesting source for writings by and about doctors and other health professionals. Chekhov is here, but so is Arthur Conan Doyle. R. Austin Freeman, author of many amusing Dr. Thorndyke detective stories, and William Carlos Williams. Walker Percy, Jonathan Miller—illustrious all, and doctors all. I conclude that one can certainly do worse than read doctors’ literary contributions, but they don’t all have to sit on the inspirational shelves—they are, in fact, all throughout the library.
           ~ John S. CAP

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2 Responses to When Doctors Write

  1. ssm says:

    I know, you would think doctors would write in a similar way. And you forgot recent Pulitzer winner The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddharta Mukherjee (about cancer)–it’s really, really good!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good post. This reminds me of Robert Coles, a doctor who (among other things) teaches literature and humanities to doctors and lawyers, and (among many other books) compiled “A Life in Medicine: a Literary Anthology” ( http://goo.gl/PTpqN ) as an offshoot of that work.

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