Readers’ picks: Top 10 novels recommended by your colleagues

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published August 28, 2018

Key Takeaways

Last month, MDLinx presented a summer reading list of 10 terrific novels featuring physicians as characters. We also asked for your favorites, and here they are. Read on to find out which great novels your colleagues recommended.


by George Eliot

Widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language and "perhaps the greatest of the great Victorian fictions," George Eliot's 1871 novel Middlemarch is a study of a large cast of characters, and their achievements and misfortunes, in a fictional rural town in central England. Two of the main characters are 19-year-old Dorothea Brooke who "had the kind of beauty that looks even better in plain clothes," as Eliot wrote, and Dr. Tertius Lydgate, "one of those rare people who decide early what they want to do with their lives." More than 40% of critics in a BBC poll included Middlemarch on their list of 25 great British novels. "A novel of great characters, it's an even greater novel of ideas and ideals," wrote one critic.

Middlemarch by George Eliot,


by Sinclair Lewis

This 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel chronicles a physician's relentless search for truth. "From its publication to the present, countless men and women have been inspired to pursue careers in research because of [Arrowsmith's] intense devotion to science," wrote Howard Markel, MD, PhD, in Public Health Reports. "The novel records and predicts many of the successes and problems that torment the medical profession to this very day, including the competition of needs, goals, and resources between those who identify themselves as clinicians and those who are scientists; the commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies in the development of new medications and vaccines versus the need to seek out and verify scientific truth;…and the evolving role of the doctor in American society."

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis,

Magnificent Obsession

by Lloyd C. Douglas

Long before the term "paying it forward" was coined, this 1929 inspirational novel provided that moral message. For most of his life, author Lloyd C. Douglas was a minister—he didn't write Magnificent Obsession, his first book, until he was 50. The story focuses on Bobby Merrick, a young playboy who has a nearly fatal boating accident at the very same time that a beloved neurosurgeon is having a heart attack across the lake. Medical attention can only get to one of them—Bobby receives it first, while the neurosurgeon dies. After learning that his life was spared at the expense of the other man's, and inspired by writings that the doctor left behind, Bobby reevaluates his life and embarks on a course of anonymous philanthropy. He becomes a neurosurgeon himself in an effort to replace the man. "In the pulpit, Dr. Douglas is a good preacher, but in this novel he is no preacher at all. Though this is his first novel, he is here all novelist," according to a book review at the time.

Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas,

The Citadel

by A.J. Cronin

The Citadel tells the story of an idealistic young Scottish doctor (modeled after the author) who finds himself up against a largely ineffective, corruption-ridden health-care system. Published in 1937, the novel was a worldwide success thought to have directly influenced the creation of the UK's National Health Service in 1948. "The clear themes of the book are that doctors should practice scientific, evidence-based medicine, that they should maintain and update their skills and knowledge, that they should work in partnership with each other, that the divide between GPs and hospital doctors should be broken, and that the profit motive should be taken out of medicine," wrote Dr. Seamus O'Mahony in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. "One finishes a Cronin book with a faintly warm, sentimental glow, feeling a slightly better person…The Citadel is still worth reading today."

The Citadel by A.J. Cronin,

The House of God

by Samuel Shem

Samuel Shem is the pen name of Stephen Bergman, MD, PhD, whose internship at Beth Israel (now known as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) inspired this novel. Published in 1978 to rave reviews, "The House of God was the first unvarnished, unglorified, and uncensored portrait of what training to become a doctor is truly like, in all its terror, exhaustion, and black comedy," according to the publisher. The story follows six eager interns, under the leadership of their rule-breaking senior resident, at the most renowned teaching hospital in the country. In the foreword, John Updike wrote that the novel "does for medical training what Catch-22 did for the military life—displays it as farce, a melee of blunderers laboring to murky purpose under corrupt and platitudinous superiors." Updike concluded, "The House of God continues to afford medical students the shock of recognition, and to offer them comfort and amusement in the midst of their Hippocratic travails."

The House of God by Samuel Shem,

The Cider House Rules

by John Irving

Published in 1985, The Cider House Rules is set in the first half of the 20th century in the rural Maine town of St. Cloud's. The novel's main characters are Dr. Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician and founder of the town orphanage, and Homer Wells, Dr. Larch's favorite orphan, who is never permanently adopted. The story begins with Homer's early life at the orphanage and follows him as he comes of age upon leaving it. Homer's attitude to Dr. Larch changes when he learns that the doctor is a reluctant, although conscientious, abortionist. "The point…is that there are always multiple sets of rules for a given society. Heroism lies in discovering the right ones, whether they are posted on the wall or carved with scalpels, and committing yourself to follow them no matter what," wrote book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his review in The New York Times.

The Cider House Rules by John Irving,

The Physician

by Noah Gordon

Think it's tough to get into medical school today? Try traveling the hazardous journey from England to Persia in the 11th century, pretending to be from another religion and a different culture, just to have the chance to study in a medical school. That's the story of young Rob Cole in author Noah Gordon's The Physician, the first book in a trilogy. While Cole eventually winds up learning at the feet of legendary healer Avicenna, he also must choose between marriage and his medical career—and he chooses medicine. Although the book was not a major success when published in the United States in 1986, it was an enormous bestseller throughout Europe. Library Journal praised the novel as "An adventurous and inspiring tale of a quest for medical knowledge pursued in a violent world full of superstition and prejudice."

The Physician by Noah Gordon,


by Carol Cassella

New writers are often advised: Write what you know. With her 2008 novel Oxygen, author Carol Cassella—a practicing anesthesiologist in Seattle—did just that, and more. According to a review in Publishers Weekly, "this nicely wrought debut follows the travails of an experienced Seattle anesthesiologist after an 8-year-old patient dies while under the knife…the plot moves at a brisk pace, but the real hook is Cassella's knowing portrayal of the health industrial complex's inner workings; she knows the turf and doesn't spare readers the nasty bits." In addition to a tightly paced plot that twists and turns, the story also has fully realized characters facing heartrending misfortune.

Oxygen by Carol Cassella,

The End of Miracles

by Monica Starkman

This novel was written by psychiatrist Monica Starkman of the University of Michigan Medical School Department of Psychiatry in Ann Arbor. "The story was sparked by consultations/therapy I did with two women with false pregnancies (pseudocyesis). Inpatient scenes reflect my experiences on our units as a resident, and chapters involving outpatient therapy reflect our work as clinicians," Dr. Starkman explained. The story focuses on a woman whose desperate desire to become a mother is thwarted by infertility and miscarriage. After a false pregnancy, the woman's hopes are dashed, which plunges her into deep depression and, eventually, acts of desperation. According to the publisher, "this emotionally gripping novel is a suspenseful journey across the blurred boundaries between sanity and madness, depression and healing." The novel was an International Book Awards finalist for literary fiction in 2016.

The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman,


by Robin Cook

Charlatans is the latest medical thriller from New York Times bestselling author and physician Robin Cook. In Charlatans, the new chief resident at Boston Memorial Hospital begins to suspect that one of his fellow physicians is involved in the suspicious death of a healthy patient. When more deaths occur, the chief resident is forced to question all the residents on his staff, including Ava, a social media junkie who has multiple alternate personas for herself on the Internet. Cook shows that social media, like many disruptive innovations, has been both a tremendous advantage to society as well as a destructive menace. "Where Cook shines is in illuminating that combination of impersonal professionalism and potential terror haunting every hospital corridor. A return to form for the master of medical malevolence," according to Kirkus Reviews.

Charlatans by Robin Cook,

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