Frank Gill Slaughter: physician and writer

Martin Duke
Mystic, Connecticut (Fall 2016)

 

Figure 1.  Senior class picture of Frank Gill Slaughter, 1926.   (From The Chanticleer for 1926, Volume 13,
page 105, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.)

Among the many well-known physician-writers of the last century, one of the most prolific was Frank Gill Slaughter (1908-2001).   He was a popular and bestselling author of more than sixty books of fiction and nonfiction on medical, historical and biblical subjects as well as the author of numerous articles, editorials and book reviews in medical and nonmedical periodicals.   Not only was he an accomplished storyteller, as he often described himself,1 but his writings were thoughtful, carefully researched, and not without a touch of humor.

Born in Washington DC on February 24, 1908 to Stephen Lucius Slaughter and Sallie Nicholson (Gill) Slaughter, the family moved to Berea, North Carolina where he was raised.2-4   Many years later he would write:

My own love affair with dramatic stories undoubtedly began when, while still a small boy, I discovered a stack of old issues of Argosy, St. Nicholas, and the like tossed away in the attic of the prerevolutionary, log-walled farm home in rural North Carolina where I grew up…Then came the fall day in 1916, when I saw my first library in the one-room school in Berea, NC, where my formal education began at the age of 8.4

Slaughter graduated from the nearby Oxford High School as class valedictorian and at the young age of fourteen entered Trinity College, shortly thereafter renamed Duke University.2   He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, graduated with an A.B. degree (Figure 1), and initially considered entering the chemistry program at Yale.3,5 But instead, he applied to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he was accepted in May, 1926.3   Years later, he described his good fortune in having Dr. Wilburt C. Davison, then assistant dean of Hopkins, as a mentor:

Those of us fortunate enough to be in Dr. Davison’s preceptorial group gained an interest, even a love, for medical history, plus an admiration for the sometimes maligned “art of medicine.”  Stored away deep in my mind even after 40 years are still more seeds of medical lore, gained during those student days in Baltimore, and from these seeds will come other novels of medicine’s heritage from history and the arts.4

In medical school, Slaughter was introduced to historically significant figures from medicine’s past such as Andreas Vesalius and Ignaz Semmelweis, both of whom would appear prominently in his books during his later writing career (Divine Mistress, Immortal Magyar).4

After receiving his medical degree in 1930 at the age of twenty-two, Slaughter worked for four years as an intern and surgical resident at the Jefferson Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia.  In 1938, he married Jane Mundy, a surgical nurse at the hospital, with whom he would have two sons.   Following a brief stay at Kiefer Hospital in Detroit as a resident in thoracic surgery, he joined the surgical staff at Riverside Hospital, a group clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where he would practice from 1934 to 1942.5  He became a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1938 and was certified two years later by the American Board of Surgery.  During this period, he also began what he later described as “a self-imposed internship in fiction writing.”5  Commercial success, however, was limited at first to the sale of one short story bought for $12 by the Chicago Daily News.4

Interested in the economic aspects of medicine, Slaughter studied and learned about hospital insurance and prepaid medical care.  This material was incorporated into his first published novel That None Should Die, written during the late 1930s while he was still in practice and published in 1941 by Doubleday and Company, Inc.4,5  In part autobiographical, the story is about an idealistic young surgeon, Dr. Randolph (Ran) Warren, who had a plan—the Warren Plan—for reorganizing and reforming medical care in the United States.  The book was well received and in all likelihood the royalties Slaughter received encouraged him in his later decision to give up his practice and to concentrate on a full-time career as a writer.  It is also a reflection of the book’s merit that thirty years after it first appeared Slaughter participated in a discussion held by the New York Academy of Medicine at which the Warren Plan was recognized as having been a prophetic and workable vision for the future of medicine.6

Joining the US Army Medical Corps in 1942 after the entrance of the United States into World War II, Slaughter served as Chief of the Surgical Service at the Station Hospital in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for over three years.4,5  In 1945, now a Lieutenant Colonel, he was transferred to the US Army Hospital Ship Emily H. M. Weder in the Pacific, where he took command of the ship’s complement.5,7  After a long voyage to the Philippines to pick up wounded and other personnel, the ship returned to Long Beach, California, in November of that year where it was decommissioned and Slaughter reassigned as Chief of Surgery to the Station Hospital at the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation.7   Released from active duty in early 1946, he went back to Jacksonville, bringing with him several novels he had written while in the service.   Having decided to give up the practice of medicine, his career as a novelist and writer would now begin in earnest.

Slaughter, however, did not completely sever his ties with medicine.  For a brief period of time he participated in public relation activities with the Florida Medical Association and frequently contributed articles to the state medical journal.4   Indeed, his many contributions to the journal were acknowledged in 1967 as follows—“This is the fifteenth consecutive year the Journal has published a guest editorial in December by Dr. Slaughter, Florida’s distinguished physician-author.”8  Other medical and scientific journals to which he contributed included Scientific American, the Journal of Medical Education, the Southern Medical Journal, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  In addition to book reviews for the Saturday Book Review and the New York Times, he wrote numerous other articles, occasionally with whimsical and appealing titles such as “How to be an expert on anything”9 and “Old writers never die—they just scrawl away.”10

But it was Slaughter’s novels and his books of nonfiction that firmly established his reputation.  Over sixty were published from the 1940s to the 1980s, an amazing output averaging more than one book a year.  Most were on medical subjects: “I wrote best about what I knew best—medicine,”10 he once said.  Others were on historical and biblical themes.  At one time, he suggested that the reason for his success was that “the curiosity of the public about things medical is probably greater than on any other single subject—except perhaps sex.  Fortunately, a novelist willing to undertake the grueling discipline necessary to learn his trade can combine the two to his considerable benefit.”4  Not surprisingly, Slaughter was a conscientious researcher himself, stating that “the success of an historical novelist, granted that he has learned to write a good story first, depends upon the extent of his research.”11  And as he noted, “After writing thirty-two historical novels, I still find the background research for each one of them the most fascinating part of my work.”9

Slaughter was represented throughout his career as an author by the literary agency of Brandt and Brandt, later Brandt and Hochman.  During these years, several of his novels were adapted for films including, among others, Sangaree in 1953 and Doctors’  Wives in 1971.12  Slaughter was also active in civic, cultural and educational affairs in his community, serving as a trustee of Jacksonville University in Florida from 1962 to 1973.  At graduation exercises on August 12, 1978, the University conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, at which time he gave an address entitled “The Right to be Wrong,” a plea for tolerance in academia that continues to carry an equally strong message today.13

Frank Slaughter died on May 17, 2001, at the age of ninety-three.12  The books he wrote gave pleasure to many people, including the author of this brief article who enjoyed reading them in the 1950s while in medical school and his residency.   And indeed, should not that be one of the main purposes of good storytellers—to provide pleasure and enjoyment for their readers?  Frank Slaughter truly succeeded in doing that.

 

References

  1. Slaughter FG.  Confessions of a storyteller.  ALA Bulletin 1965; 59(11): 1003-5.
  2. Strickland AC.  The Life and Novels of Frank Gill Slaughter: a Bio-Bibliography.  M.S. Thesis/dissertation.  Florida State University, 1955, p. 5.
  3. School of Medicine, Student Record, Class of 1930, Frank G. Slaughter, The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
  4. Slaughter FG.   When the scalpel sharpens the pen.  JAMA 1967; 200(1): 19-22.
  5. School of Medicine, 50th Reunion, Class of 1930, The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
  6. Slaughter FG.   A functional model for improving the medical care system.  Bull N Y Acad Med 1973; 49(5): 361-75.
  7. Letter from Frank Slaughter to Mr. Weder.  Biographies-General; 2010.7.3.4248; AMEDD Center of History and Heritage, Archival Repository, JBSA Fort Sam Houston, TX 78234.
  8. Slaughter FG.  Tomorrow’s hospitals—today.  J Fla Med Assoc 1967; 54(12): 1159-60.
  9. Slaughter FG.  How to be an expert on anything.  The Writer 1977; 90(7): 11-13.
  10. Slaughter FG.  Old writers never die—they just scrawl away.  The Writer 1980; 93(2): 9-10.
  11. Slaughter FG.  History and the historical novelist.  American Heritage.  New series, 1953; 4(2): 16-7, 69, 70.
  12. Obituary: Frank Slaughter; Doctor Wrote Novels.  http://articles.latimes.com/2001/may/24/local/me-2026.
  13. Jacksonville University Commencement Exercises, Aug. 12, 1978.  Jacksonville University Archives, Carl S. Swisher Library.

 


 

MARTIN DUKE, MD, FACP graduated in 1954 from the New York University School of Medicine.  Following postgraduate training in medicine, pathology and cardiology, he was in private practice in Manchester, Connecticut from 1963-1993.  During this period he served as Director of Medical Education and Chief of Cardiology at the Manchester Memorial Hospital and held a teaching position at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.  He is the author of two books, over a hundred medical articles, and is on the editorial board of the state medical journal.

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