Summer reading: Our Top 10 novels featuring doctors

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published August 3, 2018

Key Takeaways

Summer's not over yet and there's still time to get in some good reading! Here's our list of 10 terrific novels, selected by our editors, that also feature physicians as characters. Read on and let us know what you think.


by Mary Shelley

Now celebrating its 200th year in print, Frankenstein is as meaningful today as it was 2 centuries ago. It's often interpreted as a morality tale about the dangers of playing God (Frankenstein was the doctor, as you may recall, not the creature.) But it's also a work that combines elements of the Gothic novel with that of the Romantic movement and has even been hailed by some as the first true science fiction novel.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley,

A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Notable as the first ever Sherlock Holmes story, this 1887 novel also gives us the most information about Holmes' indispensable assistant, John Watson, MD, recently retired from military service. Doyle himself was a physician, although not a busy one at first so he filled his unoccupied office hours by writing fiction and produced A Study in Scarlet at the age of 27. In the creation of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle based the character, in part, on his medical school mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was known to wow his students with his keen powers of observation.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,

Of Human Bondage

by W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century and W. Somerset Maugham made his masterpiece semi-autobiographical by including his life experiences. He was a bestselling author and playwright, as well as an ambulance driver in World War I (serving in the same corps as Ernest Hemingway), an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, a world traveler, an art collector, and—last, but not least—a physician.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham,


by Richard Hooker

H. Richard Hornberger Jr, MD—under the pen name Richard Hooker—based his book on his experiences as a military surgeon at a US Mobile Army Surgical Hospital ("M.A.S.H.") during the Korean War. It took Hornberger more than a decade to write the novel (with help from professional sportswriter W.C. Heinz) and it was rejected by multiple publishers. It became a huge success when it was finally published in 1968 and was adapted into a movie of the same name (winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) and then the massively popular television show, which ran for 11 years.

MASH by Richard Hooker,


by Robin Cook

In Coma, a medical student training at a major Boston hospital discovers that patients are mysteriously falling into comas during surgery. When she investigates, she learns that the chief of surgery has masterminded a nefarious plot to sell organs from the brain-dead coma patients on the black market. Coma was surgeon Robin Cook's first major published novel. It became a blockbuster bestseller in 1977 and is credited with kickstarting the genre of medical thrillers. Cook has since written many more bestselling medical thrillers, declaring "If my books stop selling, I can always fall back on brain surgery."

Coma by Robin Cook,

Jurassic Park

by Michael Crichton

Although Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about the risks of genetic engineering, it's also a rip-roaring science fiction thriller. The 1990 bestseller was followed by a second novel and adapted into a blockbuster movie that spawned four sequels. Crichton, who trained as a physician but never went into practice, wrote multiple novels with the similar theme—cutting-edge scientific achievements that go wrong and wreak havoc. Crichton also wrote and directed numerous movies including Coma, the medical thriller written by his friend Robin Cook.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton,

The Alienist

by Caleb Carr

It may sound like sci-fi, but The Alienist is a historical crime novel set in 1896 in which a psychologist (then known as an alienist—ie, one who studies people's "alien" nature of mental illness) pursues a serial killer in New York City. Although author Caleb Carr chose a mental health practitioner as his title character, he himself is a published historian and the book is rife with intricate period detail and real-life historical figures, including future president Theodore Roosevelt, mobster Paul Kelly, and financial tycoon J.P. Morgan. The 1994 novel recently found its way onto television in the form of a 2018 Emmy-nominated miniseries.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr,

The Surgeon

by Tess Gerritsen

New York Times bestselling author and physician Tess Gerritsen has written numerous romantic and medical thrillers. (She wrote her first published novel while on maternity leave!) But 2001's The Surgeon marks the first novel in the bestselling series featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli, where she is hot on the trail of a copycat killer, and medical examiner Maura Isles. While the series is the basis for the TV show Rizzoli & Isles, fans of the show should be warned that Isles doesn't appear until the second novel, The Apprentice.

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen,

The Terror

by Dan Simmons

The Terror is a sprawling (784 pages!) novel based on an 1840s historical account of the doomed seafaring expedition to the Arctic of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror to find the Northwest Passage. When both ships are trapped by ice, the stranded, starving crew eventually resort to mutiny and other desperate measures, all while being stalked by a supernatural (or is it?) monster out on the ice. In a clever twist, Dr. Henry Goodsir, an anatomist and assistant surgeon who is considered the lowest of the expedition's doctors, resorts to his own desperate measure with the mutinous crew. This 2007 novel has also been adapted into a 2018 television miniseries.

The Terror by Dan Simmons,

Cutting for Stone

By Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese, an Ethiopian-born physician now living in the United States, interweaves 20th century history into this moving novel of twin brothers who were orphaned at birth in a mission hospital in Ethiopia, and who grow apart as they grow older. A main theme of the book is empathy, especially that of physicians toward their patients—the title refers to a line in the Hippocratic Oath that directs physicians to not cut the patient, even for bladder stones. The 2009 novel became a New York Times bestseller and was named a best book of the year by both Amazon and Publisher's Weekly.

Cutting for Stone By Abraham Verghese,

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