March 18, 2013 2 Comments

Top 10 Doctor-Writers

aka Ten Doctor Writers Everyone Should Read

Let me just start by acknowledging that top 10 lists are: absurd, biased, intriguing, powerful, useless, helpful, and ubiquitous – depending of course on the topic, its author, and you, its reader.

the pen and the stethoscope

Some of this author’s biases:

-          I like a good story

-          I love muscular, original language

-          In my book, empathy counts

-          Ditto impact and desire to make the world a better place

-          I read far more modern literature than classic so anyone who wrote before the 20th century is unlikely to make my list for all the wrong reasons

-          Oh, and I’m American so I read in English and I read more Americans than other writers (we are known for this as a country and disparaged for our literary myopia by the more open-minded in other countries…)


Doctor writers of literary import

  1. Anton Chekhov – anything and everything; an acquired taste for some used to post-modern literary pyrotechnics; among the most profound writers on class, character, motivation; I prefer his short stories to his plays, but I always prefer short stories to plays so that likely says more about me than the work.
  2. William Carlos Williams – poems and The Doctor Stories, because even as medicine changes over time, it also stays the same. And because class matters.
  3. Mikhail Bulgakov – because The Master and Margarita is one of the best novels of the twentieth century.
  4. Nawal El Saadawi – Egyptian feminist and physician so in many ways a voice from whom we in the U.S. have heard little. Hugely prolific, viewed as controversial and dangerous by her government. You know someone has something important to say when they are threatened and locked up for advocating for the disenfranchised
  5. Ethan Canin – Ok so he never really practiced. He did do part of a residency (I know, because I was his resident. Twice.) And he can write. What’s more his empathy and ability to see the other’s point of view as early as Emperor of the Air suggests he might have been a great doctor.
  6. Oliver Wendell Holmes – if you’re in medicine, you’ve heard of him, but did you know he was considered one of the great poets of his century and that he started The Atlantic Monthly magazine?
  7. Abraham Verghese – a practicing physician with the literary skills of a 18-20th century master. Even his non-fiction, particularly his first book (maybe still my favorite) My Own Country, reads like great literature with language, scenery, dialogue and shifting points of view.
  8. Chris Adrian – because you’ve never read anything like his work: sick children, religion, fairies, retold classics from the Bible to Shakespeare. Adrian has a completely unique imagination and something important to say.
  9. Richard Selzer – the most erudite of modern physician-writers. His use of language and imagery and his classical knowledge has such elegance, I just had to put him on the list
  10. Atul Gawande – because although others are out there in the world, he is arguably the physician writer with both storytelling abilities and a real and significant impact on health care

If this topic interests you, here are some related blog posts you might like:

  1. Quotes from doctor-writers 
  2. How to become a doctor-writer by the doctor-writer David Hellerstein (whom I had the great pleasure of finally meeting while reading at Columbia Narrative Medicine Rounds last month)
  3. Seven reasons why doctors write

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2 Responses to Top 10 Doctor-Writers

  1. Philip Lederer March 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Interesting! What about Frank Huyler, one of my favorites? :)

  2. William Maloney, DDS July 22, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    What about Zane Grey? dentist who gave us our vision of the American West.

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