15 Writers Who Were Also Medical Doctors
Doctors are notorious for their illegible writing (ask any pharmacist), but these medicos gained more fame for their readable writing than for their skill with a scalpel.
1. ANTON CHEKHOV (1860–1904)
In the midst of his acclaim as a playwright and master of the modern short story, Chekhov—whose works include The Seagull and Uncle Vanya—continued to practice medicine sporadically.
2. MIKHAIL BULGAKOV (1891–1940)
Bulgakov is best known for his posthumously published novel, The Master and Margarita, a critique of the corruption and paranoia of Soviet society. A nearly fatal case of typhus contracted while serving as an army physician in the northern Caucasus persuaded him to switch from doctoring to writing.
3. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE (1859–1930)
While studying medicine in Edinburgh, Doyle served as a clerk to Joseph Bell, a pioneer of forensic science famed for his ability to deduce a stranger’s occupation and recent activities by close observation. Does that ring a bell? Yes, Dr. Bell was the primary inspiration for Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
4. OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, SR. (1809–1894)
Holmes, father of a Supreme Court justice (and potentially the inspiration for Sherlock’s last name) was a very popular poet in the 19th century and one of the founders of The Atlantic Monthly. As a medical practitioner and professor at Dartmouth Medical School and Dean of Harvard Medical School, he campaigned for improved hygiene and railed against quackery like homeopathy.
5. ROBIN COOK (1940- )
Cook practiced ophthalmology for decades after his medical thrillers with one-word titles—including Coma, Outbreak, and Fever—found a guaranteed spot on the bestseller lists and were sought after for movie and TV adaptations. Coma was made into a film (directed by none other than Michael Crichton) in 1978 and adapted as a TV mini-series in 2012.
6. MICHAEL CRICHTON (1942–2008)
The author of techno-thrillers including Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain began publishing fiction while at Harvard Medical School. Unlike Dr. Cook, when Dr. Crichton completed his degree, he ditched medicine in favor of his early love: writing.
7. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (1883–1963)
Williams, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, may be best known for his brief poem, “This is Just to Say.” Despite his many literary pursuits, he had a long career in medicine, serving as chief of pediatrics at a Passaic, New Jersey, hospital from 1924 until his death.
8. KHALED HOSSEINI (1965 - )
This Afghanistan-born author was a practicing internist until sales of his first novel, The Kite Runner, flew sky high.
9. W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM (1874–1965)
Though he had qualified as a doctor, the success of his first novel, written while he was in medical school, led Maugham to jettison the medical profession in favor of literature. Despite scathing early reviews, Maugham’s 1915 novel Of Human Bondage has never gone out of print.
10. WALKER PERCY (1916–1990)
After completing his medical degree at Columbia University, Walker contracted tuberculosis. Reading existentialist philosophy during his convalescence, he decided to devote himself to writing. His best-known work, the National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, reflects his philosophical interest.
11. FRANÇOIS RABELAIS (C. 1483–1553)
The French satirist, whose raunchy humor made “Rabelaisian” synonymous with earthy or bawdy, came by his knowledge of bodily functions honestly. He had been a friar in west-central France, but, restrained from scientific study in the monastery, left to study medicine and later set up practice in Lyon, an intellectual center of the time.
12. NAWAL EL SAADAWI (1931 - )
This Egyptian feminist activist, physician, and psychiatrist has written many works of fiction since the publication of her first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, in 1958.
13. FRIEDRICH SCHILLER (1759–1805)
Schiller served as an army surgeon before achieving fame for plays that were revolutionary in form and social criticism. Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven each set poetry by Schiller to music. In Beethoven’s case, it was the “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony.
14. ARTHUR SCHNITZLER (1862–1931)
Schnitzler, whose psychological dramas reveal the lust and world-weariness of Viennese society as the 19th century turned into the 20th, practiced medicine, with an emphasis on psychiatry, most of his life. Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut and La Ronde by Max Ophüls were based on works by Schnitzler.
15. ABRAHAM VERGHESE (1955 - )
Verghese, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, continues to write essays since the publication of two memoirs and the bestselling novel, Cutting for Stone.
BONUS: WRITERS WHO STUDIED MEDICINE BUT DIDN'T GET MEDICAL DEGREES
OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728–1774)
The author of the novel The Vicar of Wakefield and the play She Stoops to Conquer tried his hand at various trades and spent a few years studying medicine in Edinburgh.
JOHN KEATS (1795—1821)
Although Keats never wrote “Ode on a Test Tube,” he studied medicine at a London hospital as an apprentice to an apothecary-surgeon and became a licensed apothecary. But poetry was his drug of choice.
GERTRUDE STEIN (1874—1946)
Pressed by her mentor, William James, Stein entered Johns Hopkins Medical School, but grew bored and dropped out in her fourth year.