I’ll never forget my father’s reaction when I announced around the family dinner table one evening that I had decided to go to medical school to train to become a surgeon. I was 24 years old and had just completed a master’s degree in English literature. Nearly choking on his food, and no doubt trying to defend himself against the substantial financial outlay such a venture was bound to involve, he croaked, “But you’re a words person, not a numbers person.”
He was the first of many to express surprise at my passage from literature graduate to medic. But, although I have been asked countless times over the years why my interest switched so radically from books to bodies, I have never seen my choices in those terms. For me, medicine and literature—and writing in particular—have always seemed perfect bedfellows. Both indulge a fascination in the human condition. Both engage directly with matters of life and death. Both require of their practitioners discipline and a certain type of constitutional fortitude.
It comes as no surprise then that many of the greatest writers have been doctors. And while these writer-physicians have often chosen poetry or drama over fiction as their preferred form, there are also enough examples of physicians who have written novels that, when I decided to take this leap myself, I knew there was an honorable community from which I might derive silent support. Here are some of the best.
To my mind, there is no better doctor-writer alive than Khaled Hosseini and while I have enjoyed all three of his novels, The Kite Runner is my favorite. Set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s tumultuous recent history, Hossein’s debut has extraordinary breadth but also manages to be a deeply intimate story of family and friendship.
Very soon after beginning my medical training, I started wanting to write. I would go to dissection classes, cut up a human cadaver, and then go home and write about what I had learned and felt. I didn’t think of this impulse as anything other than a kind of private therapy until, one day, a friend gave me a copy of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. This wonderful and highly autobiographical novel gave me my very first sense that the stuff I was witnessing in the hospital was worth writing about.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s tale of a visit by the devil to the Soviet Union, is a brilliant and beautifully written satire. It also should offer hope to any writer feeling exasperated by getting a novel finished, since Bulgakov started writing it in 1928 and it wasn’t published until 1967.
Finally, I have to wander slightly off brief with my last two recommendations. Although Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is more autobiography than fiction, there is no better example of a doctor writing about the experience of practicing medicine. Lam does this with a modesty often absent in such memoirs and his prose is immaculate. And finally, I simply cannot recommend writing by doctors without mentioning the poet I love above all others, John Keats. I know he never wrote a novel, but for writing that gets to the very heart of the beauty and suffering of human existence, there is no improving on his verse. On Melancholy is my very favorite of his odes.
Gabriel Weston is an ear, nose and throat surgical specialist. Her memoir, Direct Red: A Surgeon’s View of her Life-or-Death Profession, was selected as a best book of the year in 2009 by The Economist and The Telegraph, was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, and received the PEN/Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. She lives in London with her physician-husband and their children.