A (Very Brief) Literary Tour of Medicine

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

I love medicine. When I was younger, I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist. But you know what they say about the best laid plans, and things didn’t quite turn out that way. My education did end up involving medicine and health, just in a different aspect. While in school and during practica at hospitals, I devoured medical books: memoirs, textbooks, handbooks, you name it. My health psychology program was part of a medical school, and I loved their library. I would check out countless oncology books and take copious notes. Just because.

Although my heart lies with maternal-child health and oncology, I will read about any and every field of medicine. I’m not picky. If it’s medical, send it my way. Given the popularity of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House, I doubt I’m the only one. For me, medical books represent some of our most basic ideals: helping others, aiding them through life, helping new life emerge, and guiding others through the end. If it’s a more scientific book, the way our bodies work on a cellular level is like nothing anyone could ever dream of, and I find it endlessly fascinating. (If you’re thinking nothing could be more boring, I’d suggest Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life — you might change your mind).

While I’d love to go through every single medical specialty and share my favorite books, in the interest of time and space, I’ve only chosen a few areas of medicine and shared some of my favorites in each.

Medical School

The Intern Blues by Robert Marion

The Intern Blues: The Timeless Classic About the Making of a Doctor by Robert Marion

First published in 1989, this was rereleased in 2001 with a new preface and afterword. This was one of the first medical memoirs I’d ever read, and it has stuck with me to the point where I reread it every few years. Marion asked three of his interns to keep a diary over the year. What these three young doctors record is a starkly honest depiction of medical training in the 1980s. In the newer version, Marion addresses today’s medical training, as well as updates the reader on the doctors. If you’re thinking of going into medicine, this would be one of the first books I’d recommend.

Body of Work by Christine Montross

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross

Dissecting a cadaver is a rite of passage in medical school. All first year students do it. When Montross is faced with the task, she finds herself wondering about the cadaver, whom she names Eve: who she was, and what her life was like. As the dissection progresses, we explore the wonders of the human body and the stories our bodies might tell one day. Montross discusses the history of dissection, along with her first-year med school experiences in this compellingly readable book.

Letter to a Young Female Physician by Suzanne Koven

Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes From a Medical Life by Suzanne Koven

Not medical school per se, but this book is about a life in medicine. Even with the field of medicine evolving, women still face many, many challenges that their male colleagues do not. Koven writes about this in these letters with honesty and wit: juggling medicine and motherhood, caring for aging parents, practicing medicine during the AIDS era and again in COVID-19, pay inequity, and sexism, to name a few. She traces her time in medicine and shares how she deals with burnout and where she finds inspiration. Despite the title, this is a book for everyone.


Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

Learning about the heart was one of my least favorite things, and to this day, it’s still not a favorite of mine — but Jauhar’s book fascinated me. He brings the history of cardiology to life, but also weaves in personal stories and discusses his family’s history of heart disease. He writes about both the future of medicine and the limits of it, while bringing humanity to the art of doctoring. (I’d also recommend his searing look at the medical profession, Doctoring: The Disillusionment of an American Physician).


Complications by Atul Gawande

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

I remember picking this book up when it first came out, and loving the subtitle. I thought, okay, I’ll give this a try. Needless to say, I became a big fan and have read everything Gawande has written ever since. In this book, he writes about surgery, making mistakes, performance, and decision-making. He’s one of the best nonfiction writers out there; need I say more? (Also pick up Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, since you’ll want to read that one right after this one).


The First Cell by Azra Raza

The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last by Azra Raza

Combining medical, social, personal, and cultural perspectives, Raza explores cancer, its treatment, and the cancer industry itself. She questions what most people see as our “victories” over cancer, because the reality is a bit different. Oncology’s main focus has been on treating cancer at all costs, at the expense of exploring how it starts in the first place. Raza challenges the cancer community to do better, and discusses all of this in an accessible way to the lay reader.



Healing Children: A Surgeon’s Stories from the Frontiers of Pediatric Medicine by Kurt Newman

Newman is president and CEO of Children’s National Medical Center, and this book is about the children and parents he’s worked with over the years as a pediatric surgeon. He especially writes about the parents in such a way that keeps the child at the forefront (they are his patients, after all), but he recognizes their feelings and brings them into the fold. He discusses how pediatric care has evolved over time, and directions for the future.

Baby Doctor by Perri Klass

Baby Doctor: A Pediatrician’s Training by Perri Klass

I will read anything Klass writes, and this is a classic of hers. This is her chronicle of her pediatric internship and residency in the ’80s and ’90s; stories of patients and reflections on medical dilemmas and issues, along with reflections on the nature of medical education itself. She’s brutally honest about her work and life, and although it’s an older book, it is still just as pertinent today as it was back then.

Palliative Care

That Good Night by Sunita Puri

That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour by Sunita Puri

Puri is the daughter of two immigrants, and the two things that often provided some common ground were medicine and spirituality. The two are not as necessarily at odds as you might think, and Puri does a stunning job at braiding the two together, in her work and in her writing. We see her eventually decide on palliative medicine, which is a multi-disciplinary field that helps provide pain relief, stress relief, and preserves quality of life. She writes about living and dying well, and how medicine can help us do both.

FInal Exam by Pauline Chen

Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality by Pauline Chen

This isn’t a book on palliative care, per se. But it felt like the best place to put it. Chen is a transplant surgeon, and as a young doctor she envisioned herself saving lives — after all, that’s what doctors do, right? But she didn’t realize how much death there was. What she also didn’t expect was the depersonalization of death and dying. Chen examines why doctors are so bad at facing death — why do they tend to avoid it at all costs, and the toll it takes on both doctors and patients.

If you’re looking for more books about medicine, check out these 50 books to read if you love medicine and this list of books about the history of medicine.