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A MIRROR FOR MEDICINE: RICHARD SELZER, MICHAEL CRICHTON, AND WALKER PERCY PETER W. GRAHAM* Some of the most interesting literary reflections on physicians come from doctors themselves. And for good reason: the man who combines medical training and experience with a serious commitment to literature can see medicine from inside and outside. He can enlighten us with expert's testimony, but he has also cultivated the detachment to judge and interpret the facts he conveys. Three contemporary American authors who offer this double perspective on medicine are Dr. Richard Selzer, an academic surgeon at Yale Medical School who writes short stories and essays; Dr. Michael Crichton, trained at Harvard Medical School and the SaIk Institute but known as a writer and most recently as a filmmaker; and Dr. Walker Percy, who while convalescing from the tuberculosis that had interrupted his pathology internship embarked on a program of philosophical and literary study that led him to become a man of letters. "Someone asked me why a surgeon would write" [1, p. 15]. Thus Richard Selzer begins his essay "The Exact Location of the Soul," confronting an old question that has particular resonance today, when the "two cultures" discerned by C. P. Snow have perhaps become multiple. In an age of specialties, why should a man proficient in one field trespass upon another profession's turf? Physicians have gone in for literature at many times and for many reasons, including some that Selzer discounts. Money can matter. Tobias Smollett, a Scottish practitioner in eighteenth-century London, found that writing novels offered him a more reliable and agreeable livelihood than did treating patients. Ambition can enter into the case. Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams , among other doctor-writers, found as artists the fame that would have eluded them as mere clinicians. Even a physician at the top of his profession, an Oliver Wendell Holmes, can hanker after different flavors of honor: we recall that Faust, the prototype of man's ever-aspiring, ?Department of English, College ofArts and Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061.© 1981 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/81/2402-0207$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Winter 1981 229 limit-defying intellect, began his career with medicine. Ultimately, though, as Selzer asserts, the doctor writes because he wants or needs to communicate something, whether to discover and articulate the meaning in what he does, or to voice thoughts and feelings for which medicine offers no outlet, or to do both. This last seems to hold for Selzer, who endeavors in the short stories of Rituab of Surgery and the essays of Mortal Lessons at once to portray and to transcend his profession. Whatever his reasons, the doctor who writes has much to tell us about his work and about the world as focused by the glass of his profession. To succeed, though, he must step outside his discipline. Selzer points out the need of avoiding provinciality this way: "But I believe that the great writing about doctors has not yet been done. I think it must be done by a doctor, one who is through with the love affair with his technique" [1, p. 18]. The medical formalists Selzer presents throughout his writings, from Nicholas Szilich, the failed surgeon-poet-murderer in "Museum Piece," to the bland and horrible detail man of death in "The Corpse," show the dangers of such obsession with method. Selzer's own infatuation with surgical procedures may be over, but another passion remains in his blood. The incisive phrase, the well-knit image, the deftly placed allusion continue to fascinate him. This love affair with literary technique , the mark of his kinship with Sir Thomas Browne, the father of doctor-writers, is sometimes a distinctive strength and other times the greatest weakness of Selzer's art. Besides being keenly aware ofhis style, Selzer is highly conscious ofhis progenitors. Explicit and oblique references to literary treatments of medical concerns abound in Selzer's writing. "The Exact Location of the Soul" considers Emerson's notion of the poet as doctor. In "The Belly" Selzer dissents from Sir William Osier's verdict on Dr. William Beaumont , the pioneer of gastroenterology...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 229-239
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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