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Musings of a Cancer Doctor
Wide-ranging views and perspective from George W. Sledge, Jr., MD
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Reading Medicine

I’m an inveterate bookworm, and always have been.  I always have something to read at hand.  Some of it is, admittedly, junk. At the end of a long day in clinic, or having spent hours reading the medical literature, I will curl up with a mystery or some science fiction or something light and fluffy, with no pretence that I am doing anything other than clearing my head.

But I also appreciate good medical writing. Medical writing is a subset of scientific writing (another, and larger topic, for a different day). The best medical writers are able to take a nugget of scientific knowledge and attach it to a compelling personal story. I have often found inspiration in good medical writing, and indeed part of my interest in becoming a physician sprang from juvenile reading of fine authors.

 

Let me share some personal favorites, spread out over decades. I am certain that there are many others that I am forgetting. While the science is no longer current for many of these, the stories themselves remain compelling, and remind us why what we do is both important and the most human of intellectual enterprises.

 

1.   Microbe Hunters, by Paul DeKruif (1926).  DeKruif was the father of the field, the first bona fide scientist to tackle medical writing. Still a great read. DeKruif also assisted the novelist Sinclair Lewis in the research for his great medical novel, Arrowsmith.

2.   Eleven Blue Men, by Berton Roueche (1954).  Roueche was a staff writer for the New Yorker for decades, and his “medical mysteries” remain wonderful.

3.   Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks (1973).  Sacks has written many fine books touching on neurologic themes, but this early one on encephalitis lethargica, later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro, is still a favorite. A first-rate clinician, Sacks loves both his patients and his craft.

4.   The Nazi Doctors, by Robert Jay Lifton (1986).  Anyone who believes that physicians are inherently virtuous should read this book. Not just Dr. Mengele, but also an entire profession, betrayed its most cherished principles in pursuit of an evil ideology.

5.   And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts (1987) is the story of the early portion of the AIDS epidemic, where politics, inertia, and human folly combined to create a preventable epidemic. I remembered this book recently when reading about the planned, and Draconian, budget cuts for the CDC.

6.   The Hot Zone, by Robert Preston (1994).  This book about Ebola virus gave me the heebie-jeebies when I first read it.

7.   My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese (1995).  Verghese has since gone on to write the acclaimed novel Cutting for Stone, but this earlier work documents, in compelling fashion, the impact of AIDS on a small community, seen through a doctor’s eyes.

8.   The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry (2004).  I opened this expecting to read primarily about the 1918-19 flu epidemic. It is that and much more: a history of the development of medical science in the early 20th Century, and how that science faced a global catastrophe.

9.   The Family that Couldn’t Sleep, by D.T. Max (2006).  A fine discussion of prion-induced diseases, seen through the lens of a Venetian family with a tragic, and inherited, prion-induced sleeping disorder.

10. The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011).  I would love this book for its title alone, but it is a fine history of our struggle with cancer, and well deserved its literary awards.

 

I notice, in reading this list, that it is heavy on infectious disease and neurology. For some reason oncology has not attracted the same interest from science writers -- Mukherjee and Jerome Groopman (who I nearly put on the list, but decided to limit myself to 10 works) being notable exceptions.

 

About the Author

George W. Sledge, Jr., MD
GEORGE W. SLEDGE, JR., MD, is Chief of Oncology at Stanford University. His OT writing was recognized with an APEX Award for Publication Excellence in the category of “Regular Departments & Columns.”