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(from left) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov.
(from left) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and A Young Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov.

10 books that weave medical science into great storytelling

From Frankenstein to the Bombay plague, via Bell Jar

The thrust of our cover story this week is the extraordinary rise of books written by doctors that unravel the past, present and future of medicine and medical research. These are not medical text books—these doctor-authors have made the ambitious and difficult choice to write for a general audience, to unravel the mysteries of medicine, of our bodies—indeed of humanity itself—for the layman.

Each of these books have opened up a seemingly grey-and-white, sterile and often cold-hearted world into a world that also has space for real and raw human beings with emotions and stories, and in some cases, a great, consuming passion for their work.

But there have also been great works of fiction that have raised incisive, often futuristic questions that go deep into the core of what scientific and medical progress really means for us—when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was prophesysing the debates that rage right now about gene therapy and genetic engineering, a debate that is sure to get more and more heated in the times to come.

Here’s our pick of top ten books that are premised on medicine and/or medical research.

1.The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks recalls case histories of patients afflicted with different neurological disorders. If you’re intrigued by the mysterious functioning of the brain, or if you’re curious to see the world as people who’ve lost entirely their memory do, or if you want to really understand the old adage that people who’re ‘disabled’ are actually exceptionally gifted in some form or the other, then this book is for you.

2.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

Adapted into a 1975 multiple Oscar-winning film, this book’s protagonist who takes over control of a mental hospital by defying its head nurse’s authority. He brings in prostitutes, breaks into the pharmacy for cough syrup and more, and gets the other inmates to support him. The book serves to critique institutional mechanisms and processes and is a study of behaviorism.

3.The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

One of the most popular books from American Literature in recent times, Plath’s book is considered a masterpiece in how real it makes the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s breakdown into insanity, from being a beautiful and talented young woman.

4.Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, V.S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee, Oliver Sacks

Ever wondered whether all this talk about a patient’s mental attitude and will helping cure ailments comes with any basis? What about the difference between imagination and reality? This book makes accessible, with a good dose of humour, many intriguing aspects of neuroscience and cognitive science to the lay-reader with real-life case examples.

5. A Young Doctor’s Notebook, Mikhail Bulgakov

This is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories about a young doctor who, fresh out of med-school, is thrown into a remote, provincial Russian town to treat patients who are uneducated, superstitious and suspicious of medical practice. As an added bonus, this book was adapted into a wonderful limited edition mini-series starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, from Harry Potter series of films) and Jon Hamm (Don Draper, from the Emmy-award winning drama series Mad Men).

Check out the trailer here

6.Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks

Who doesn’t know of the power of music to move us and to affect our mood. Oliver Sacks—whose writing is most loved for being a perfect meeting of scientific research and creative non-fiction— breaks it down for us.

7.The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Translated into about 14 different languages, this book uses the author’s experiences as a Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and interweaves it with the general history of cancer treatment and research. The book also won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

8.The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester

Did you know that there’s actually a tale of mystery behind the origins of the everyday Oxford English Dictionary (OED)? The editor of the OED, professor James Murray tries visiting one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, an American surgeon by the name William Chester Minor. Turns out Dr. Minor is actually—apart from being an impressive wordsmith—an insane murderer locked up in an English asylum.

9.Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

This classic, first published in 1818 is about a science student Victor Frankenstein, who through an experiment, brings alive a creature—Frankenstein’s Monster— made of an assortment of stolen body parts. Given all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering, and organ donation, this book throws up interesting questions and ideas. The book, which Shelley started when she was all of 18, is almost a rite of passage for anyone who’s grown up reading.

10.Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague, Kalpish Ratna

Did you know that in 1896, Mumbai (then Bombay) was in the right grip of the bubonic plague? Written by the duo Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, this book weaves adventure and mystery, with detectives who, armed with microscopes and culture try to track ‘the killer’.

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