Most people don’t associate literature with medicine, but an unusually high number of renowned poets, playwrights, and novelists from the past and present have also been doctors. These well-rounded physicians are now known more for their writings than their day jobs, but learning about their careers in medicine offers some interesting insights into the many varieties of creativity and the way that physicians can balance healthcare with their other interests.
William Carlos Williams
Imagist poet William Carlos Williams was one of the most influential American poets of the modernist era, but he also had a 40-year career as a pediatrician and general practitioner. According to his wife, Williams loved being a doctor, making house calls, and talking with his patients. But he also chose the career as a way to write with complete freedom independent of financial concerns. According to writer Linda Wagner, Williams “understood the tradeoffs; he would have less time to write; he would need more physical stamina than people with only one occupation . . . [he] was willing to live the kind of rushed existence that would be necessary, crowding two full lifetimes into one, . . . learning from the first and then understanding through the second.” I’m sure many modern physicians also feel that they are “crowding two full lifetimes into one” trying to balance a demanding schedule with family and their other interests, but William Carlos Williams is an inspiring example of how to succeed at this.
John Keats only lived to the age of 25, but in that short time, he managed to become both a licensed apothecary/surgeon and one of the most celebrated Romantic poets. Keats attended Guy’s Hospital (which later became part of King’s College London), where he acted as a dresser or assistant surgeon (a position reserved for students who showed promising talent). While in medical school, however, he also began writing sonnets, and, once he received his apothecary’s license, he chose to pursue poetry rather than further medical study. Although he didn’t have the chance to practice medicine in his short life, he accomplished the incredible feat of perfecting his medical and literary skills at the same time.
Unlike many writers who relied on medicine to support their writing careers, Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov used his writing to put himself through medical school. He supported his whole family and funded his education by writing short satirical pieces and stories for the newspapers, eventually graduating from I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University and becoming a qualified physician in 1884. However, by this time, the writing he had done purely for the money had also become a passion, and he began to publish serious plays and works of fiction. Chekhov is now considered one of the creators of the modern short story as well as of modern theater.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Although his name is now synonymous with his character of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle also published prolifically in the medical field. Trained at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, he began publishing in medical journals around the same time that he started writing stories for popular magazines. He was an early supporter of vaccinations and even delved into ophthalmology studies in Vienna. He ran a successful medical practice in Portsmouth, but his reputation as a doctor was soon overshadowed by his literary success, although, of course, his medical expertise also came into play in the plots of his novels and short stories.
Renowned Soviet satirist Mikhail Bulgakov got his start as a physician at the Kiev Military Hospital after graduating from Kiev University in 1916. He later became a country physician in Smolensk, where he published a book of short stories based on his experiences entitled A Young Doctor’s Notebook. After contracting typhus as an army physician in the Ukrainian People’s Army, he retired from medicine to become a writer. He is now best known for works of satire like The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog.
Before writing the best-selling novels The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini graduated from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and practiced as an internist for more than ten years. Although he no longer practices medicine, he continues to help people through his work as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, providing humanitarian aid to people in Afghanistan.
W. Somerset Maugham
British playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham accomplished the amazing feat of writing his first novel while in medical school at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, basing Liza of Lambeth on his experiences as a student specializing in obstetrics. When the novel became a best-seller, he chose to pursue a career as a writer rather than a physician. His medical experience must have had a significant impact on his work, however, as Maugham went on to become one of the successful writers of the 1930s with his play Of Human Bondage, the semi-autobiographical story of a medical student.
German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote his first play (The Robbers) while in medical school at Karlsschule Stuttgart military academy in the 1770s, a place where he also became acquainted with the work of another great German Romantic poet whom he would later work with—Goerthe. He was appointed as a regimental doctor a few years later, but he was arrested for leaving his post without permission to see a performance of The Robbers. Soon afterward, he ran away to become a professor of History and Philosophy in Jena and one of the most celebrated writers and thinkers of his era.
Michael Crichton is both a graduate of Harvard Medical School and one of the most prolific writers on our list, having authored best-selling novels, hit TV shows, and blockbuster films. He began publishing action and science fiction novels under the pseudonym “John Lange,” while in medical school, and although he received his MD, he never obtained a medical license, choosing to focus on writing instead. Crichton has stuck with medicine and science as a theme, however, with the TV show ER and his novels and films Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain.
Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian psychiatrist, activist, and writer whose novels and memoirs have been translated into more than 30 languages. She received her M.D. from Cairo University in 1955, after which she published her first book of short stories, The Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. She went on to get her M.P.H. from Columbia University and serve in the Egyptian government and United Nations, all the while publishing works of fiction and non-fiction. Saadawi has become one of the most important advocates for women’s health and rights in the Arab world while giving Arab women a voice through her writing.
These writer-physicians are all great examples of the way a life in medicine can fit in with a life in the arts. So if you’re a healthcare professional, hopefully these writers will inspire you to add some new books to your reading list, revisit a work you’ve read before, or even try writing more yourself. After all, these physicians have proven that the experiences of doctors make for both best-selling and world-changing material.