Prescribed reading: medicine in literature

From The Guardian:

Hippocrates-001 Last night I attended the prize ceremony for the inaugural Wellcome Trust book prize, awarded to “outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction on the theme of health, illness or medicine”. I was attracted by its slightly barmy mixing of literary disciplines. And I was impressed by the calibre of the judges, among whom were Jo Brand (chair, and 10 years a psychiatric nurse) and Raymond Tallis, one of the few people whose writing clarifies, rather than further muddles, my understanding of neuroscience.

The shortlist, which can be viewed in full here, comprised two novels and four non-fiction books ranging between autobiography, investigative journalism and biographical essays. The winning book, Keeper, Andrea Gillies' memoir of caring for a relative with Alzheimer's, hasn't received a single review since its publication in May – something this award will, one hopes, remedy.

Speaking with Brand and Tallis before the ceremony, I wondered which books they thought best demonstrated the qualities they were looking for. Interestingly enough, they both chose novels. Brand described Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as being about “a very specific time in American history, when psychiatry was very unsophisticated and nurses were really no more than prison warders”. Tallis opted for Mann's The Magic Mountain, which “brilliantly fictionalises medicine, the thrill of science, and the mystery of the human body.”

The prize's website plays a similar game, suggesting García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Ian McEwan's Saturday as likely nominees from the past. But the possibility exists, of course, to reach back much further in the literary record than this. Illness, certainly, was present at the birth of western literature: just think of Apollo, angered by Agamemnon's insulting of the priest Chryses, sending a plague to ravage the Greek army in the Iliad. Medicine is present, too, albeit in primitive form: the many wounds Homer describes are anatomically accurate, while Machaon's herbal remedies and palliative care are doctoring of a sort.

More here. (For Dr. Alvan Ikoku who is sure to win this prize in the future.)