We asked readers to name a book that made the biggest impression on their medical careers. Nearly 200 physicians responded, naming both fiction and non-fiction books—from a hilarious hospital farce and a collection of curious case reports to encyclopedic clinical reference works and the biography of a dedicated global health specialist.
Here are your most popular responses, listed in order of those that received the most votes.
The House of God
by Samuel Shem
This dark but hilarious novel of life and death in an American hospital has been described as "Catch-22 with stethoscopes."
Why did it make such a big impression? "In hindsight, it gave me a preview of what residency and the practice of medicine would be like," said a gastroenterologist. "There is a lot of cynicism and skepticism in medicine and a lot of dissatisfaction with the job. There are also many older people in medicine who don't believe in work-life balance. Also, there is still rampant discrimination towards females. The book portrays all of this. When I first read it, I was an idealistic medical student who was going to save the world. Little did I know that most of my practice would be charting and fighting with insurance companies."
Read The House of God by Samuel Shem
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine
edited by J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Dennis L. Kasper, MD, et al
Now in its 20th edition, Harrison's has been the go-to reference for decades for internal medicine specialists to gain current understanding of pathophysiology.
Why did it make such a big impression? "One of my mentors where I trained had trained and started the program with [Dr.] Harrison. I not only learned medicine, but life experiences from him and his experiences," said one internal medicine physician.
Said a cardiologist: "I have read the 14th, 15th, and 16th editions, and plan to read the latest edition for recertification. This book was so vast in its scope that it made me fall in love with internal medicine." (But readers should take note: It's no longer a single book, but two large volumes.)
Read Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine edited by J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Dennis L. Kasper, MD, et al
You might think that religion and medicine don't go together—but for a lot of doctors, they're inseparable.
Why did it make such a big impression? "It helped me learn how to incorporate compassion into the art of medicine," said a nephrologist.
Said one psychiatrist: "Old Testament, New Testament. It's made the biggest impression on every aspect of my life—period."
Read Holy Bible
Atlas of Human Anatomy
by Frank H. Netter, MD
Now in its 7th edition, Netter's Atlas of Human Anatomy is the only anatomy atlas illustrated by physicians, providing clear-cut views of the human body along with clinical perspectives.
Why did it make such a big impression? "It was my first book in medical school. I would eat, sleep, and breathe it," said an ophthalmologist.
A sports medicine physician wrote: "I have found Netter's Anatomy to be a fascinating book with specific details and information on everything from bone, muscle, nerve, etc. It is the best and most engaging anatomy book ever created! I would definitely say that this book helped me in my career choice of sports medicine and non-operative orthopedics, and I still use it on a weekly basis."
Read Atlas of Human Anatomy by Frank H. Netter, MD
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Written by a surgeon, Being Mortal is an examination of how medicine can improve quality of life—and also provide a rich and dignified death.
Why did it make such a big impression? "As doctors, we have to learn that [medicine] is not always about fixing a problem. Being Mortal is about knowing when you can't, and focusing on the person and not the disease," said an oncologist.
"All the training physicians do is meant to keep people alive. This book brings us back to reality by teaching us how and when to let go gracefully," said another physician.
Read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, The Emperor of All Maladies is the story of cancer—from its first appearance thousands of years ago to the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control, and conquer it.
Why did it make such a big impression? "It solidified my career in oncology. And it provided perspective on the messiness that goes into modern medicine," one oncologist wrote.
Said an internal medicine physician: "Although the subject is depressing, Mukherjee is uplifting, empowering, and hopeful for cancer treatments—and medicine. It's scientific and detailed without the stiffness that often dulls medical/scientific books for lay people. And the history is fascinating."
Read The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The White Coat Investor: A Doctor's Guide to Personal Finance and Investing
by James M. Dahle, MD
Doctors train for years to cure patients yet receive no training to keep their finances and practices alive and well. This book, written by an emergency medicine doctor, provides nuts-and-bolts advice on investing and personal finances specifically for physicians.
Why did it make such a big impression? "It showed me how to arrange my life and financial house in such a way that primary care vs specialty pay did not affect my decision. I only had to weigh the nature of the work," a family medicine physician said.
"The book offers a very good introduction to financial education, which is not offered in medical schools," a cardiologist noted.
Read The White Coat Investor: A Doctor's Guide to Personal Finance and Investing by James M. Dahle, MD
The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy
edited by Robert S. Porter, MD
This handy tome was a mainstay on doctors' desks for years. Now back in its 20th edition and weighing in at a hefty 3,530 pages, this encyclopedic desk reference provides a concise but thorough overview of the diagnosis and treatment of just about every medical condition.
Why did it make such a big impression? "[It was] the first book that comprehensively explained disease and treatment," said an emergency medicine physician. "It's kind of the medical bible [for its] content, and it's good for looking up interesting, uncommon diseases."
Read The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy edited by Robert S. Porter, MD
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales
by Oliver Sacks
In this book of 20 compelling case reports, clinical neurologist Oliver Sacks conveys both the medical significance as well as the deeply human consequences involved in severe and unusual conditions of the mind.
Why did it make such a big impression? "I really enjoyed Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It was my first introduction to strange neurology diagnoses and the stories behind the patients," said a pediatrician.
"Really interesting stories that stoked my interest in medicine," a family medicine physician wrote.
Read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Mountains Beyond Mountains
by Tracy Kidder
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder tells the true-life story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor and infectious disease specialist who realized his calling was to bring life-saving modern medicine to people around the world who need it most.
Why did it make such a big impression? "The story of Paul Farmer investing the time to treat those most in need and without access, one patient at a time, represents the ideal of medicine to me, and influenced my career such that I spend a portion of each year practicing global health."
Said a gastroenterologist: "Mountains Beyond Mountains impressed me greatly, as it taught me about the humanity that can exist along with success."
Read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
By no means is this a complete list. There are many other honorable mentions you named, including:
The 5-Minute Clinical Consult edited by Frank J. Domino, MD, Robert A. Baldor, MD, Jeremy Golding MD, and Mark B. Stephens MD
Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Cope's Early Diagnosis of the Acute Abdomen edited by William Silen, MD
Iserson's Getting Into a Residency: A Guide for Medical Students by Kenneth V. Iserson, MD, and Richard Amini, MD
Kill as Few Patients as Possible by Oscar London
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi