Medicine in literature

17 February 2016

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human, covering subjects that might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. The Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics. With its shortlist being announced 14 March, we take a look at the judges’ top books that deal with medicine.

The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or nonfiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history.

The aim of the Wellcome Book Prize is to encourage public involvement and encourage debate about the issues that the shortlisted books raise and to bring new writers and readers to the subjects of medicine and health. The Prize is run by a team within Wellcome Collection.

If you’re interested in reading the kinds of books described above, but aren’t sure where to start (or are looking for your next read), the Wellcome Book Prize judges have told us about their favourite books dealing with medicine.

Tessa Hadley portrait 300x300

Professor Tessa Hadley is a writer and a professor at Bath Spa University, where she teaches Literature and Creative Writing.


Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann
A superb novel about music and fascism: Mann was always fascinated by the relationships between illness and art.

Keats’ fragment of verse
Written when his tuberculosis was far advanced, ‘This living hand, now warm and capable/ Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold…’

The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
I’m cheating slightly – but it does begin with an eye operation, and then bereavement. Marvellously funny and sad.


The Memory Chalet, Tony Judt
This brilliant historian was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and though it paralysed his body and brought his early death, it made him hungry to communicate his insights into history and politics in our time, to say the huge things which were most urgent.

The Good Story, M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Novelist and psychoanalyst exchange thoughts on stories and truth and well-being.

Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, Tom Lubbock
Moving companion piece to Marion Coutt’s Wellcome Prize-winning memoir of her husband Tom Lubbock’s illness and death. Tom Lubbock was an art critic, luminously intelligent about paintings and about everything.

 Sathnam Sanghera portrait 300x300

Sathnam Sanghera is a writer and journalist at the Times.


Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry
Nariman Vakeel is a seventy-nine-year-old Parsi widower beset by Parkinson’s disease and haunted by memories of the past… A brilliant novel from our finest living writer.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris
One of my favourite books of recent times. It gets rather bogged down at times in theology, but in dentist and atheist Paul O’Rourke, who finds himself being impersonated online, Ferris has created one of the funniest narrators in recent literary history.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
A must for anyone interested in mental illness.


Surviving Schizophrenia, E Fuller Torrey
A humane and authoritative guide to a debilitating illness that has hit my family.

Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, Ben Watt
A deeply moving account of acute illness.

Awakenings, Oliver Sacks
One of the best books of all time.

 Joan Bakewell portrait 300x300

Baroness Joan Bakewell DBE is a journalist, writer and broadcaster, and was made a peer in 2011.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon

The Doctor’s Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw

The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Awakenings, Oliver Sacks

Do No Harm, Henry Marsh

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

 Frances Balkwill portrait 300x300

Professor Frances Balkwill OBE is Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London.


Tales of the City (series), Armistead Maupin
In respect of the HIV/AIDS story. These books, which I have always adored (as does my daughter), were written in real time in San Francisco. In Book 4 (Babycakes) the HIV/AIDs epidemic has a major influence on the story and its impact is realistically, sensitively and powerfully portrayed. The end of the decadence and free-love of the ‘70s and early ‘80s and the impact of the epidemic then are major themes in the following books.

Saturday, Ian McEwan
A contemporary story about a London Neurosurgeon.


The Immortal Life of HenriettaLacks, Rebecca Skloot
Engrossing, original, important and moving story that combines science, ethics and social history.

Far from theTree,Andrew Solomon
Each chapter is a book in itself – a ‘once in a decade’ book.

The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox
Another side of the Double Helix story and also fascinating insight into the life of a female scientist in the 1950s.

 Damian Barr portrait 300x300

Damian Barr is a writer, columnist and salonnière.


The Farewell Symphony, Edmund White
This semi-autobiographical novel follows “A Boy’s Own Story” and “The Beautiful Room is Empty” and charts first-hand the devastating advent of AIDS.

Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame
This describes a poor family in New Zealand unmade then remade by a daughter’s struggle with mental illness. Guaranteed to make you bawl.

The Plague, Albert Camus
Has been reprised many times and never more than in our apocalypse-obsessed now, but it remains the most compelling and disturbing.


Somewhere Towards The End, Diana Athill
Tells the truth about ageing and dying in a clear-eyed non-sentimental but entirely life-enhancing way.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs
A memoir about his alcoholism which manages to be both painful and painfully funny by virtue of his unflinching candour.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
It took me into a twilit world of grief and loss I hope never to experience myself.

The shortlist of the Wellcome Book Prize 2016 will be announced on 14 March and the winner will be revealed on 25 April. Find out more on the Wellcome Book Prize website