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20 Essential Biographies for Medical Students


In the rare moments when medical students actually have a bit of free, quiet time to themselves, they may want to pick up a relevant read and see what lessons they can glean. Regardless of whether or not any biographies, autobiographies and memoirs come courtesy of professional or patient, they all provide some great insight into some facet of the field. Learning straight from the experiences of those that came before makes for an excellent supplement to classroom study, opening up minds to different perspectives they may not otherwise encounter.

Plenty more biographies beyond the ones listed here have quite a bit to offer as well, so do not consider these 20 as anything final and definitive. Think of them as a nice sample before branching off and exploring the other valuable reads available.

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:

    Medical science would have ended up in severe stagnation were it not for the discovery of HeLa cells — an immortal cervical cancer sample responsible for polio vaccines, gene mapping, AIDS and cancer research and plenty more staggering advances. But until recently, nobody knew the often life story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom the culture was originally (and unknowingly) taken.

  2. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox:

    As with most women in the biological and medical fields prior to the mid-to-late 20th century, Rosalind Franklin witnessed many of her discoveries and theories appropriated by male colleagues — who, in turn, received all accompanying accolades without giving her any credit. Her research proved crucial in discovering DNA's double helix structure, but James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize while she ended up floundering in obscurity.

  3. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Tyler:

    Rather than a debilitating tragedy, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Tyler considered her stroke the perfect opportunity to research exactly how the brain works (and even repairs itself!) under such traumatic circumstances. This incredible memoir chronicles her bizarre, beautiful and beneficial experience transforming terrible physical and emotional pain into an influential learning experience.

  4. Gifted Hands by Ben Carson and Cecil Murphey:

    This inspiring autobiography takes readers from Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods to Johns Hopkins Hospital, tracing the life of an incredibly innovative surgeon and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ben Carson pioneered the hemispherectomy and a technique for safely separating conjoined twins, amongst plenty of other staggering and impressive accomplishments.

  5. In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed:

    For Qanta Ahmed, her overwhelming desire to practice medicine completely transcended the pressures of Saudi Arabian cultural and religious restrictions. After both the United States and Great Britain denied her entry, she faced some staggering challenges and offers up some incredible first-person insight into a corner of the medical world that few ever have a chance to witness.

  6. Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill:

    All medical students should take the time to explore and understand the history of nursing as well, especially since they'll end up working in close proximity to its practitioners. One of the most famous names in the industry, Florence Nightingale, spent the Crimean War completely revolutionizing sanitation, hygiene, procedurals and more — to the point she significantly lowered the fatality rate!

  7. Clara Barton, Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor:

    Another essential read about one of the world's most influential nurses, this time peering into the life of the American Red Cross' admirably driven founder. Considering the organization's international influence today, it would certainly behoove medical students to read about its origins and overarching mission.

  8. Something for the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER by Paul Austin:

    Paul Austin actually launched his career as a firefighter, but a curious series of events and insights inspired him to pursue medicine instead — a motion which ultimately landed him in the emergency room. Regardless of whether or not a student ends up working one or not, this excruciatingly honest memoir showcases all the stresses, ethical questions and other common (and not-so-common) issues associated with this particular medical corner.

  9. Against Medical Advice by Hal Friedman and James Patterson:

    Pharmacology most definitely heals, but certainly possesses a darker element, particularly when it comes to misdiagnoses, overdoses and inadequate testing. The bestselling Against Medical Advice peers into one such hell, relaying the story of young Cory Friedman and his battle with Tourette's, obsessive-compulsive disorder and the medications only exacerbating both conditions.

  10. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee:

    Rather than a biography of individual medical care professionals, add a little variety and read about one of the world's most prevalent and mysterious killers — cancer and its myriad incarnations. Here, students, professionals and curious audiences alike can trace the history of pretty much everything related to the disease, from its discovery to some of the cures to everything else that lay between.

  11. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder:

    Medical students or professionals with a particular inclination towards social and economic justice will likely find Mountains Beyond Mountains an incredibly inspiring, engaging book. Laudable Paul Farmer wields his prodigious medical prowess in the service of the planet's most exploited, marginalized and impoverished communities, providing them with all the necessary care he can.

  12. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher:

    Not every healthcare professional will necessarily encounter anorexia, bulimia or another eating disorder, but it still pays to understand how these misunderstood conditions operate. With visceral detail, Marya Hornbacher dissects many of the mysteries and misconceptions surrounding them, using her own horrific suffering as an illustrative tool.

  13. My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese:

    AIDS consumes a small Tennessee town, and its resident expert — the author himself — finds himself fascinated by the disease but helpless to effectively quell it. My Own Country recounts both the achingly human stories behind patients and their loved ones, so often left faceless by the media, and the myriad ways in which their trusted doctor attempted to make sense of the nightmare.

  14. Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory:

    Munchausen by proxy may not exactly be terribly common, but that doesn't mean medical professionals should ignore the signs and how much it can traumatize children. This harrowing memoir reveals just how much of a physical, emotional and psychological toll MPB can take on a victim and provides some valuable lessons in how to recognize the symptoms.

  15. The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream by Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt, George Jenkins and Lisa Frazier Page:

    The men behind the Three Doctors Foundation share their incredible story about how Seton Hall University's Pre-Medical/Pre-Dental Plus Program saved them from the New Jersey slums. Today, the nonprofit provides scholarship for low-income or otherwise marginalized students, ensuring them the education and training necessary for a more stable, satisfying future.

  16. Cooked: An Inner City Nursing Memoir by Carol Karels:

    Like the title promises, Cooked takes audiences to one of the most dangerous hospitals in America — Cook County on Chicago's West Side. Author and nurse Carol Karels trained there and uses this autobiography to reflect upon both its ever-present socioeconomic issues and the significant role the institution played in shaping her life and career.

  17. My Ambulance Education: Life and Death on the Streets of the City by Joseph F. Clark:

    EMTs work one of the most breakneck, stressful and critical medical positions available, rushing around the front lines to ensure the health and safety of the grievously sick and injured. Learn all about the physical, emotional, mental and personal toll such a career path can take on an individual; hopefully gain a greater appreciation of what ambulance drivers and staff must suffer on a daily and/or nightly basis.

  18. Trauma Junkie: Memoirs of an Emergency Flight Nurse by Janice Hudson:

    In Trauma Junkie, Janice Hudson reflects on a decade spent with the California Shock/Trauma Air Rescue as a flight nurse, aided by journals written as a means of quelling the omnipresent anxiety and stress. What resulted is an ultimately revealing, provocative work shedding light on an oft-overlooked segment of the medical profession; future emergency room physicians need the insight into the people delivering their patients.

  19. Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley:

    Written from a journalist's perspective rather than a medical professional's, this memoir reveals just how harrowing life can be when trapped beneath the influence of serious allergies. Sandra Beasley can't consume a litany of different foods for fear of death, but still manages to wring considerable humor from the painful stinging; even non-allergists benefit from reading the all-too-human component of grievous conditions.

  20. Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years by Michael J. Collins:

    Medical students considering the surgical field — or even those working in close proximity to them — might want to pick up Michael J. Collins' memoir for a glimpse at what they might encounter. He chats about the details of his Mayo Clinic residency, particularly the mentors, coworkers and patients who completely shaped his career; in the end, he believes that compassion must reign over all else.

July 11th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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