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Physicians and Writers

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) confessed to his friend and editor in a letter that medicine was his wife, but literature was his lover. Chekhov had started writing almost as he was finishing his studies of medicine in Moscow and only took his literary vocation seriously later. His sharp insight into the depths of the human soul, into its greatness and its miseries, was probably the result of his professional endeavour, of dealing constantly with death and want.

Most physicians who were also writers adopted a similar naturalistic lens to analyse the world around them. Mikhail Bulgakov (1841-1940) reflected his experiences as a province doctor in his A Country Doctor’s Notebook, long before becoming famous for his Master and Margarita. The Spanish Pío Baroja (1872-1956), who was a professional doctor only for a year, acquired public recognition for works such as Zalacaín el Aventurero or the famous El Árbol de la Ciencia. Medicine did not only supply plots and good psychological insights to eminent writers, it also gave them enough professional details to create complex characters, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) Sherlock Holmes or Llorenç Villalonga’s (1897-1980) Bearn, and to concoct unexpected crimes, like those described by Agatha Christie (1890-1976), a voluntary nurse during the First World War who later qualified as an apothecaries’ dispenser.

Some physicians were ground-breaking philosophers, like the Persian Avicenna (980-1037),the Austrian Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) or the German existentialist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), and even poets, like the American William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) or the English Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin’s granfather, who gained public recognition for his defence of education for women and the abolition of slave-trade.

As Published on IDEAS Magazine [1] (Spring 2018)