Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Medical and literary coupling

Stephen Finn
South Africa


(To be read aloud, with gusto and with a strong beat)

Collage created by Hektoen staff. Images from left to right.

Top row: Portrait of Rabelais, circa 1820. By Louis-François Durrans. From the Rabelais Museum, via Wikimedia; Anton Chekhov, via Wikimedia.

Center: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Bottom row: Dannie Abse at the Forward Poetry Prize judging meeting 2014. Photo by Daisyheadmaisie. CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikimedia; Nawal el Saadawi. Photo by Melafestivalen – Oslo. 2007. Via Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

When you’re so busy in the middle of a ward,
Or you’re doing the usual and feeling quite bored,
Just think of your fellows who healed the sick,
So many doctors, and what’d give them a kick.

Denizens of medicine they all certainly were,
But made a mark in writing, too, we really can aver,
Married to both disciplines, their works are so well done
And give us much to think of, both serious and fun.

We’ll concentrate on writers, poets and more,
Novelists and dramatists you cannot ignore,
Going from the Middle Ages until today,
Some remain popular, others passé.

Let’s start with Avicenna, polymath sublime,
Eleven hundred years ago, that was then his time,
A fine Persian example with philosophy and logic,
Math and so much poetry, and also pedagogic.

Then there is Maimonides, rabbi and also poet,
If you want religious info, he’s the one to know it,
He wrote about astronomy, ethics and law,
And also on philosophy which engenders quite some awe.

Hildegard of Bingen, the Sibyl of the Rhine,
Wrote much on medical matters and also did define
The best in monophony, morality plays as well,
And with her exalted poetry, she really did excel.

Rabelais was different, a doctor he was, too,
But known for his satires, jokes that told his view,
A bit like Aarestrup who from Denmark came,
He wrote on the erotic, and rose to much fame.

Thomas Lodge defended plays as you can find,
And wrote the funny prose work Rosalynde,
That influenced Shakespeare quite a bit
In his great comic drama, As You Like It.

Friedrich Schiller’s plays and lyrics that were great
Inspired songs and operas manifold that really were first rate
By Brahms, Schubert and Verdi—Donizetti, too,
Beethoven and Rossini, to name but just a few.

The poet Byron’s doctor, Polidori,
Had quite an original memento mori,
For the novel he wrote was called The Vampyre,
The first of the kinds which today still inspire.

His friend, the Romantic, was beloved John Keats,
A doctor he was—along with his feats
Of poems sublime, his lyrics so great,
But he died so young, that was his cruel fate.

He was the muse of a certain thespian,
William Carlos Williams, an American,
Often calling Keats his god, and writing several plays,
As well as poems and novels that once were such a craze.

Aiming more at tension was Josephine Bell,
Who makes us quite breathless under her spell
Of detectives who’ll find clues, who lost and who won it
To make us all wonder where’s guilt and whodunit,
Her works suspenseful without a cessation,
And started she did the Crime Writers Association
To which belonged the doctor Conan Doyle,
With his character astute no one could foil,
And so many tales, they made up tomes,
You know his name—it’s Sherlock Holmes.

A Ladies’ Detective Agency you will find
In books by A. McCall Smith incarnadined,
Others by forensic Ryan Blumenthal,
Whose tales can currently hold a room in thrall.

So many doctors were really quite diverse,
Going from plays to novels, as well as writing verse,
I’ll tell you of some, not an exhaustive list,
You might come up with more that you think I have missed.

Chiefly was Chekhov, that dramatist of fame,
With Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters to name
But three along with his stories, five hundred they were
And also fine novels that still bestir.

Mikhail Bulgakov, he was Russian,
Had works contentious with repercussion,
Some were banned but others were not,
Such as Days of the Turbins, performed such a lot.

Austrian Arthur Schnitzler described a demi monde,
Famous most for Reigen, that became a film, La Ronde,
All about paid sex, taking the world by storm,
Then banned quite a bit—not like Somerset Maugham,
A doctor and a writer, but in secret service, too,
Best known for Human Bondage, to name one of a few,
Something like Yusuf Idris, an Egyptian who won
For City of Love and Ashes top prize, well done.

Another prize winner grand, won nationally twice,
For poetry and plays, but that did not suffice
As he between all genres did readily vault,
So please now learn about C. Louis Leipoldt.
Botany and travelogues, recipes books, too,
Novels and stories all made up a brew,
While he wrote against oppression of LGBTQs,
Of women and blacks, of Indians and Jews.

Alike was Dannie Abse, whose works are seldom flawed
And won for his poems the Wilfred Owen Award,
As well as another for synthesis so genuine—
The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.
Humorous and moving, profound are his lyrics
Whether they are written in iambics or dactylics.
Playwright, novelist, poet top flight,
Such a fine writer and erudite.

Winner of peace prizes, so very well deserving
Was Nawal el Saadawi, whom authorities found unnerving
When she demanded rights for women in different spheres,
Feminist and physician, her stories have few peers.

Egyptian, too, sometimes getting in a fix
By writing not just novels but also on politics,
Dentist Alaa al Aswany is a winner of some prizes,
For his denigrating everything that he publicly despises.

Abraham Verghese from Ethiopia hails
But lives now in the US, where he often writes his tales,
For one of which, a novel, the Heinz Award he’s won
Recognized for writing that is of course well done.

Gambian Lenrie Peters is someone much admired,
Not for his novels only as it’s his poems that inspired,
Scathing of corruption and also Western force,
With Africa’s travails that were his main source.

Headily controversial is Taslima Nasrin,
Outspoken in her writing which she sees as feminine
In decrying all oppression of women she’ll support
And not always finding favor in her perpetual onslaught.

Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner was a hit,
There’s little in his writing that’s seen as counterfeit,
A Thousand Splendid Suns is likewise Kabul based,
A searing story narrated of sorrows that are faced.

Let’s talk of Suhayl Saadi, who really writes a lot,
His novels and short stories are incredibly hot,
Contemporary he is, a lyricist for rock,
Librettist for an opera, a versatile doc.

Some doctors’ stories are aimed rather at the young
Who get such joy from them, thereamong
Stephen Potts who holds kids in thrall
And tells about dangers that befall
Those sea-going youngsters, facing knavery
But then exhibit impressive bravery.

Much more sad was that martyr supreme,
Janus Korczak in an evil regime,
Who wrote tales for children and told them, too,
When they walked to death together, and that we rue.

But let’s lift our mood once more and mention
Richard Gordon to get rid of tension,
He wrote about a doctor, so hilarious,
Books made into films that were quite various.

Others, too, went from book to movie,
Some were scary, others groovy,
James Kahn, who was no lazy bones,
Wrote Star Wars, those Jedi, and Indiana Jones.

Robin Cook wrote famed Coma and Sphinx,
Mixing past and future, quite gripping methinks.
Another one who’s proven to be a titan,
Wrote Jurassic Park, that’s Michael Crichton.

That’s a thousand years of doctors who wrote
And have shown us their worlds as an antidote,
To elicit emotion, portray the world anew,
And have taught us fresh things, at times have changed our view.

So when you’re that busy in the middle of a ward,
Or you’re doing the usual and feeling rather bored,
Pay tribute to your fellows who can us all delight,
They do not only heal the ill but also finely write.



STEPHEN MARCUS FINN, DPhil, MA, BA, HED, DSLT, is a professor Emeritus of English. His academic writing has ranged from literature to animal rights, medicine, art, history, and religion. He has also published award-winning plays, novels, and poetry, the main focus being on the outsider in society, school bullying, and animal rights.


Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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