Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Medical Inkling: R.E. Havard, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Sarah O’Dell
Irvine, California, United States

R.E. Havard and C.S. Lewis at The Trout Inn, Oxford, circa 1950s. Private collection. Used with permission of the Havard Family. 

In a smoky back corner of an Oxford pub and the book-filled rooms of Magdalen College, the celebrated writing group known as the “Inklings” gathered, debated, and laughed throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Their literary impact has been tremendous, in part because of the incredible success of their two most prolific members: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the celebrated creators of Narnia and Middle Earth. Despite the enduring popularity of their literary circle, many are unaware of the physician who was one of the Inklings’ most faithful members.

Often referred to as the “Medical Inkling,” R.E. Havard (1901–1985) was an Oxford and Cambridge-trained physician-scientist, essayist, and poet. Before moving to Oxford in 1934, a young Havard researched blood chemistry with J.B.S. Haldane and worked in a pathology institute at the University of Leeds. When a renewed desire to treat “people, not test tubes” motivated a relocation to Oxford, C.S. Lewis was one of his first patients.1 Although Havard’s house call was intended to address Lewis’s coughing and sneezing, Havard recalls that the pair spent “some five minutes discussing his influenza…and then half an hour or more in a discussion of ethics and philosophy.”2 Their instantaneous rapport laid the foundation for an enduring friendship that would only end with Lewis’s death nearly thirty years later.

Lewis quickly introduced Havard to Tolkien, who also became one of Havard’s closest friends—and patients. In praising his medical acumen, Tolkien contrasted Havard with physicians who were “mere ‘doctors’ [and] tinkerers with machinery”; Havard instead “[thought] of people as people, not as a collection of works.”3 Havard and Tolkien’s friendship was strengthened by their shared Catholic convictions. They often attended Mass together, especially during the time (1953–1968) that the pair were neighbors on Sandfield Road. While Lewis and Tolkien were opposed to the automobile—along with much “modern” technology—they both regularly depended on the busy physician for a ride.

Both Lewis and Tolkien immortalized Havard in their fiction. Lewis’s trio of science-fiction novels features a protagonist, Ransom, who is repeatedly whisked away on dangerous interplanetary journeys. In Perelandra (1943), multiple Inklings feature as characters: while Ransom is (in part) modeled on Tolkien, Lewis himself serves as the narrator of the tale. Havard—referred to by his nickname “Humphrey”—appears as the pair’s physician, valued not only for his skill, but also for his discretion: keeping reports of aliens and space-travel secret was presumably no easy task.4 Similarly, Tolkien’s posthumously published The Notion Club Papers contains a certain “Rupert Dolbear,” a research chemist with polymathic interests: philosophy, psychoanalysis, and gardening.5

These varied preoccupations clearly mirrored R.E. Havard’s real-life intellectual pursuits and professional leanings. In addition to writing and publishing essays on philosophy, religion, and aesthetics, Havard provided the first lecture of the Oxford Socratic Club in 1942: “Won’t mankind outgrow Christianity in the face of the advance of Science and Modern Ideologies?” Havard, who—like Lewis—had converted to Christianity following a period of atheism, answered in the negative. Havard’s religious convictions and professional affiliations also converged in his service to Catholic monasteries and convents, where he offered holistic medical care attentive to patients’ spiritual concerns. In this capacity, he often provided psychiatric advice, reflecting a longstanding interest in the “ill-defined borderland between body and mind.”6 This work culminated in a papal knighthood, received when he retired in 1968. He is the only Inkling to have received a knighthood—either lay or ecclesiastical.

Havard also shared Tolkien’s botanical interests. While Tolkien’s tendency to stop and examine “trees, flowers, birds and insects” proved an unbearable frustration for the fast-walking Lewis, Havard often kept pace with Tolkien, eagerly examining the foliage as they went along.7 Their common interest in herbalism was reflected in a tongue-in-cheek clerihew Tolkien dedicated to Havard: “Dr. U.Q. Humphrey / Made poultices of comfrey / If you didn’t pay his bills / He gave you doses of squills.”8 While Havard’s tendency to collect comfrey or squills is sadly unconfirmed, he collected and dried flowers on a number of occasions, including his travels to modern-day Ghana as a naval surgeon during World War II.

Havard’s unique status as the only scientifically trained member of the Inklings highlights his importance to a group otherwise composed of Oxford dons and literary scholars. Havard was repeatedly called upon for his scientific and medical expertise; for instance, Havard collaborated with Lewis in The Problem of Pain (1940). In addition to providing suggestions throughout the writing process, Havard wrote the book’s appendix, a “note on the observed effects of pain…supplied…from clinical experience.”9 Previous research has demonstrated how Lewis considerably revised Havard’s contribution to The Problem of Pain, drastically shortening the piece and removing Havard’s compassionate account of psychiatric care.10 In contrast, Havard’s original draft reflects a profound emphasis on the tragedy of severe mental illness and the necessary humility of the effective physician. In a portion completely removed by Lewis, Havard describes the transformative value of providing care to the “insane”: “to look after the insane is a valuable discipline. It teaches gentleness and self-control. It induces a deep humility when it is recognized that reason itself is a gift which can be lost.”11 While it is impossible to know why Lewis made these edits, he may have done so in an effort to “match” the tone of the appendix to the rest of the work, or in response to his previous traumatic experiences with individuals suffering from mental illness.

While Havard remains woefully understudied, increased interest in the lesser-known members of the Inklings has prompted a reappraisal of his writings and his contributions to the group. Havard authored or co-authored at least forty scientific papers, which appeared in top-tier journals such as Nature and The Lancet. His non-scientific writings include published poems, essays, medical commentary, book reviews, and memoirs. This rare combination of physician and poet, scientist and essayist opens a portal—perhaps not to a snowy Narnian forest or a Shire populated by Hobbits—but to a realm where medicine and the work of the imagination become one.


  1. Oral History Interview with Robert Havard, July 26, 1984, OH / VR-10, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. Used with permission.
  2. Havard, Robert. “Philia: Jack at Ease.” C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, and Other Reminiscences. Ed. James T. Como. Macmillan, 1979.
  3. Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
  4. Lewis, CS. Perelandra. The Bodley Head, 1943.
  5. Tolkien, JRR. Sauron Defeated. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
  6. Havard, RE. “The Religious Life: The Role of the Medical Adviser.” Catholic Medical Quarterly 10 (1956): 25-8. Accessed January 1, 2019.
  7. Sayer, George. “Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature 21, no. 2 (1988): 21-5. Accessed January 3, 2023.
  8. O’Dell, Sarah. “An Unexpected Poet: The Creative Works of Dr. Robert E. Havard.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature38, no. 1 (2019): 21-42. Accessed January 3, 2023.
  9. Lewis, CS. The Problem of Pain. The Centenary Press, 1940.
  10. O’Dell, Sarah. “The (Revised) Clinical Imagination: An Unpublished Appendix to ‘The Problem of Pain.” VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center 36 (2019): 21-44. Accessed January 3, 2023.
  11. O’Dell, Sarah. “The (Revised) Clinical Imagination.”

SARAH O’DELL is an MD/PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine. She is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University, where she received a BS in Biology and an MA in English. Her research considers the relationship between Gothic literature, proto-psychiatry, and imagination in the eighteenth century. She is also writing a book on physician and Inkling R.E. Havard. As a future physician-scholar and aspiring psychiatrist, she is passionate about what the past can teach us about healing the mind.

Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest

Spring 2023



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