Doctors in Literature

Doctors frequently appear in novels, stories, plays, and other forms of literature, because they play an indispensable role in society. Almost every reader can relate to interacting with doctors in their lives. In literature, doctors play characters ranging from a small background role to pivotal protagonists in different genres such as crime, science-fiction, drama, etc. From family practitioners in Jane Austen novels to leading characters in Sherlock Holmes stories, doctors in literature form fascinating characters who provide more than medical knowledge, they also have multidimensional characters representing human complexity.

Doctors in literature representing higher human values

Aside from healing diseases and providing medical advice, doctors also represent a source of rationality and wisdom in society. The nature of a doctor’s job compels them to be impersonal, to observe facts and recommend the best course of action to resolve problems and to promote the well-being of all people.

Some of the most iconic medical figures that play a largely positive role in literature are as follows:

  • John H. Watson
    Dr. Watson is the narrator in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective novels and short stories. He plays an important role as he is Holmes’s companion and biographer. He is responsible for relating Sherlock’s exploits in solving mysteries and crimes from his perspective to the reader. Sherlock Holmes regarded Watson as an excellent physician and surgeon, albeit unable to match Sherlock’s keen intelligence and observational and deductive powers. Sherlock valued Watson’s courage and reliability, describing him as follows:
    Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow.
  • Zhivago
    Dr. Zhivago is a Russian novel written by Boris Pasternak. The book is a Russian opus that follows Dr. Yuri Zhivago during turbulence in Russia from the time of the Russian Revolution to the Second World War. Dr. Zhivago is a physician and poet who experienced a difficult childhood and went on to face tremendous upheaval due to the major political events of the time. The book remains an international classic which was considered a threat to the Soviet Union due to the characters’ musings and criticisms of the then ruling government.
  • Doctor Dolittle
    Doctors have also appeared in children’s books such as The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. It inspired the well-known Doctor Dolittle movie starring Eddie Murphy, and this character has entertained children and families for generations. Doctor Dolittle is a character who learns to speak the language of animals and soon prefers to work with animals than people. The Doctor Dolittle series follows the doctor as he goes on several thrilling adventures helping animals and people in different places.
  • Wilbur Larch
    Dr. Wilbur Larch is a leading character in the book Cider House Rules written by John Irving. The book was also adapted for the cinema. This book addresses complex social themes and moral issues through Dr. Larch, a character with firm beliefs who is willing to break the law to serve his beliefs. He believes that people have a choice, and their choices should be respected. This is especially significant given the number of restrictions on women’s personal freedom during the 1920s to 50s, where the story takes place.

Famous doctors in literature with complex characters

Human beings are multifaceted. Hence, doctors are depicted in literature as varied and complex. Many popular stories portray doctors as antagonists or people who play complicated roles. Nevertheless, even in such cases, doctors are cast into respected and awe-inspiring roles that influence the well-being of people in different ways.

  • Victor Frankenstein

    The name Frankenstein is so prominent that Frankenstein’s monster is a common feature in all cultural art featuring horror and mystery. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818 featuring the intelligent and privileged Dr. Victor Frankenstein who, in his thirst for knowledge, pushed the boundaries of science to create a monster. He immediately regrets his work and attempts to destroy his creation. Dr. Frankenstein represents hubris, ego, and mankind’s desire to know all and create all, failing to respect nature to his own detriment.

  • Jekyll

    Robert Louis Stevenson created the character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from a nightmare he experienced. His story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has thrilled readers and movie-goers for generations with the idea that a person can transform from an entirely normal being to a near-monster. The story highlights the duality of people and that good and bad exist side by side.

These are some of the greatest and best-known medical figures in literature that have existed for decades and centuries and are still referenced today in movies, television shows, and stories. It is interesting to note that the doctors featured were all men, as a reflection of the time in which such content was written. Women have faced barriers to education and the medical profession, and it is evident from the lack of female doctors featured prominently in classical literature.

Today, female doctors appear in modern stories and mostly in television series, and it is reasonable to expect that more pivotal and enduring female medical characters will be written in the future to portray the more diverse and progressive society we now live in.

There are thousands of books in which doctors are invariably mentioned as part of the scenery or as active participants. What remains the same is that doctors are viewed as a part of the backbone of any society, and people depend on them to have a sensible head at the time of crisis. Doctors are not only expected to cater to physical illnesses but also act as influential members of society. They represent higher human values as they heal not only the wealthy and higher classes of society but also the poorest and the most disadvantaged.

However, they are also complex characters who display human fallibility. If previous literature is any indication, doctors in literature will remain as a representation of rationality, knowledge, and the embodiment of human intelligence.

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