The three best non-school books for medical students

Physicians have spilled plenty of ink over the years on matters academic and nonacademic. During (and before) the long slog of medical education, the following books provide telling insights into the practice of medicine and surgery, the psyche of patients and physicians, and – in a larger sense – what it means to be human.

  1. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. Written by Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis* in 1925, some of the science and the idioms are getting to be dated, but the timeless conflicts our protagonist Martin Arrowsmith faces are still relevant today.Arrowsmith follows the education and life of Martin Arrowsmith, an all-too-human Midwestern doctor as he grapples with medical school, his love life, and a career as a physician and scientist. Along the way, he grapples with local politics and with positions that force him to shove his passion for research to the back-burner and sell out for profits. In the end, he must grapple with being a good scientist and live up to his mentor’s admonitions, or trying to help as many people as he can. Arrowsmith’s personal flaws make him an eminently relatable protagonist, and Lewis’s writing effortlessly ties together scientific fact with expert storytelling. I stayed up until 4:00 AM finishing this book; once it picks up, I doubt you’ll be able to put it down. Despite its age, the conflicts Arrowsmith faces in his profession are perennially relevant, and you will think about this story long after you put down the book.It was adapted as a film in 1931, but the reviews say that this one’s a dud! It may be the moustache that does this one in.Arrowsmith_poster
    I’d like to once again give a shoutout to Ian Drummond’s excellent podcast, The Undifferentiated Medical Student (featured here on MedSchoolBeast), as Dr. Bryan Hambley mentioned this novel on the first episode, and I otherwise would not have heard about it.*With lots of help from microbiologist Paul de Kruif, who received 25% of the royalties but isn’t mentioned as an author!
  2. Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Gawande, a surgeon at the Brigham, has become famous for his excellent, simple writing (four books and pieces in The New Yorker). Though it’s his first book, Complications is the most engaging; he reflects on his most intense cases from residency in it. His later books, while good, lack the rawness of Gawande post-residency. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance gets an honorable mention. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is an illuminating and thought-provoking look at geriatrics. I have not read The Checklist Manifesto.
  3. When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery by Frank T. Vertosick, Jr., MD. This one came recommended to me by another MD/PhD student. Books by surgeons are a dime-a-dozen. Most feature hard-hitting, exciting stories about cases and seldom reflect on anything more profound. Vertosick, however, is a deep thinker. As he works through medical school and a grueling seven-year residency (with a detour to England in the middle), Vertosick considers the meaning of his work and what patients really want out of their surgeons. This one will stick with you.