“I want to work in medicine. I’ve been reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and it’s amazing, but I wonder if you could recommend some other books.” My questioner was a teenage girl who had waited patiently to speak to me at the end of a lecture I had delivered at her school. The lecture, entitled On Moral Grounds, was about the ethics of clinical research, and it had been a special pleasure to speak to the group of 50 or so 13-18 year olds who had come along, and more specifically to answer their questions. Questions, I might add, that would have been searching even if they had come from professionals three times their age.
I thought about her question and, in truth, I am still thinking about it. What would I recommend a young person to read to ignite and further fan the flames of their enthusiasm for a medical career? Some obvious titles sprung to mind, but what had I read that had done it for me? And, how could I be sure that those books would have the same effect on others?
All I can offer, I decided, is a list of my favourites past and current – some obvious, some more obscure and others perhaps surprising.
So here are my top ten reads for would-be medics and why.
The Double Helix by James D. Watson.
Now, we all know (or at least those who read my blog know) that I am not fond of James Watson. But, that’s just a personal thing. Professionally, he is a giant. And, his stature is in part due to his autobiographical account of the discovery of the structure of DNA in this book. It is the kind of scientific detective story that would make anyone want to join up. The fact that the reality of science is not quite like Watson’s account is almost unimportant. His shabby treatment of Rosalind Franklin in the book and his casual approach to the intellectual property of others all add to the mystique of this early1950s story of the goings on in Cambridge and London.
The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss.
I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture given by the Canadian author of this book when he visited Glasgow and it was simply the best lecture I ever heard. The story of the discovery and first clinical use of insulin is one of intrigue and excitement every bit as great as the discovery of the structure of DNA, but is one much less well known. The author is a distinguished medical historian working in Toronto where much of this story of discovery takes place.
Yellow Jack by John R. Pierce & Jim Writer
This book is subtitled: “How yellow fever ravaged America and Walter Reed discovered its deadly secrets.” Like the first two books this is another unraveling of a medical mystery. It is also a tale of clinical research in action and an important milestone in the development of clinical research ethics.
Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale
Healthcare is often about opening the windows, changing the sheets and emptying the chamber pots. Simple things done very well and consistently may make all the difference. But, Nightingale was more than an advocate of cleanliness in the sick room, she was also well ahead of her time in recognising the importance of observation and recording in clinical care and in clinical research. “…it must never be lost sight of what observation is for,” she writes, “It is not for the sake of piling up miscellaneous information or curious facts, but for the sake of saving life and increasing health and comfort.”
It is surprising how many nurses have never read anything written by their founder and I recommend this short paperback for anyone who is contemplating a career in nursing or any of the caring professions. She may be a little out of fashion, but why not read and decide for yourself?
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
The emergence of a deadly influenza virus, at the close of the First World War, that would claim the lives of 100 million people is charted here with forensic precision and transformed into a moving narrative of great breadth. Lest we draw a modern parallel with the rise and spread of HIV/AIDS we are reminded by the author that influenza killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has in 24 years.
The Body in Question by Jonathan Miller
This book was originally published in 1980 and was reprinted in 2000. It was written to accompany Miller’s ground-breaking television series of the same name in the late 1970s, which was largely responsible for making me write “Medicine” on my UCAS application. You can watch with wonder the series on YouTube, including the first-ever televised autopsy, and marvel at Miller’s analogies in the book. The text is as fresh and relevant today as when it was written over thirty years ago
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
This is a short book, but the effort needed to write it was nothing short of herculean. The author was the Editor-in-Chief of French Elle. His life changed forever when he suffered a massive stroke that left him almost completely paralysed. He was able to move only one eyelid and with this he “dictated” this memoir from inside the prison of his body. Many books claim to be about the “triumph of the human spirit”, but this one actually is.
The Citadel by A. J. Cronin
I never wanted to confine this list to non-fiction. The greatest truths are often to be found in fiction, and the clearest expositions of what it is to be a doctor are perhaps to be found in the characters created by doctors who become authors. There are others you could pick – Chekhov or Bulgakov – but this was the one that made the biggest impact on me. Written in 1937, Cronin describes the idealism of a young Scottish doctor in a world before the National Health Service. In part a love story, and in part a semi-autobiographical account of medical practice, this is one to move you and motivate you to do better.
Talking Heads by Alan Bennett
These monologues will allow you to travel into the minds of the lonely, the disturbed, the manipulated, the mentally ill and the frustrated and they will ease the journey with humour and breathtaking poignancy. If medicine requires you to understand all kinds of people, here are some you may not have met yet.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Few of us can write as well as Orwell, which means few of us have the ability to describe the injuries or diseases that afflict us. Orwell was shot during the Spanish Civil War and is able to describe his experience in this book with all the power and skill he possessed. To understand injury fully you have to experience it, but not necessarily first hand if you are fortunate enough to have a patient like Orwell.
I was sorry to have been unable to answer my young questioner at the time. I did give her a copy of my own book, on which the lecture had been based. However, that was far from adequate. Curiosity and enquiry deserve reward, and it was all I had. Perhaps, by way of this list, I can now offer her and others like her something more substantial. If you have your own suggestions, I would be interested to know.
© Allan Gaw, 2013