Doctors’ Choice: Sixteen Stories about Doctors and Medicine Selected by Famous Physicians

Blaustein, AlbertBlaustein, Phyllis

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin
  • Date of entry: Aug-10-2020
  • Last revised: Aug-10-2020

Summary

Doctor’s Choice is a collection of 16 stories by authors from and well known in the early-to-mid 20th century. I offer four summaries of the stories that I am considering using in teaching.

“Rab and His Friends” by John Brown, MD, was originally published in 1859 and is sometimes referred to as young adult literature. It was one of Brown’s most successful works. The story is told in the voice of a medical student, “John”, and begins with his reminiscence of six years earlier when he first met the old “huge mastiff” Rab, and his “master”, a carrier named James Noble. John, who had befriended Rab during medical school, next sees him ‘one fine October day’ as he was leaving the hospital. Rab was with James who was bringing his wife, Ailie, to see a doctor because “she’s got a trouble in her breest…” (p.37). Examination showed no doubt that the tumor needed to be removed. Having survived the breast amputation (without anesthesia and observed by the narrator and his fellow students), four days later Ailie’s delirium set in. With James by her side, and with tender caring, Ailie died a few days later. Soon after James took to bed “and soon died…The grave was not difficult to reopen. A fresh fall of snow had again made things white and smooth; Rab once more looked on, and slunk home to the stable” (p.46). The next week John sought out the new carrier who took over James’s business to ask about Rab. The new carrier tried to brush him off—but admitted he killed the dog, explaining that the dog was inconsolable and that he had to “brain him wi’ a rack-pin….I could do naething else”(p.46). John thought it a fitting end… “His teeth and his friends gone, why should he keep the peace and be civil?”

“Miracle of the Fifteen Murderers” by Ben Hecht, was originally published in Collier’s Magazine in 1943. The narrator of this story passes along a tale he heard from an elderly friend, a physician who was one of 15 eminent physicians that formed a secret group meeting quarterly to discuss the ‘medical murders’ they had committed. The group had been meeting for the past 20 years, but had disbanded due to the outbreak of WWII—“The world, engaged in re-examining its manners and soul, had closed the door on minor adventure” (p.139). The last meeting of the group is the subject of the tale and it describes how the newest member, a young surgeon, tricked the group into providing the diagnosis for a patient this doctor, Samuel Warner, was struggling to care for. Warner explained that his patient—who he had befriended--, a young Negro boy of “seventeen, was an amazingly talented [poet whose work] “was a cry against injustice. Every kind of injustice. Bitter and burning,” (p.149). After working hard for 2 weeks to save his life, and realizing that his diagnosis of ulcerative colitis was wrong, Warner’s scheme (a feigned medical murder) got the eminent physicians to the diagnosis: a fishbone had caused the perforation that was threatening the poet’s life. Grabbing his hat and coat—and after thanking the doctors for the diagnosis- Warner is off to save his patient’s life. A half-hour later, rising to the call as well, the other 14 doctors joined Warner in the operating room to view the life-saving procedure, allowing one of the eminent physicians to remark with a soft cackle, that “the removal of this small object….will enable the patient to continue writing poetry denouncing the greeds and horrors of our world” (p. 154). 

There was no original publication date for “The White Cottage” by L.A.G. Strong, but it has been anthologized since at least 1940. The narrator tells of a visit by a locum town-based doctor to an island nearby to help a woman give birth at her home. The perilous journey from the town to the island with the expectant father and a neighbor as navigators and rowers ends with all thoroughly drenched from a storm after nearly capsizing. Realizing that the doctor has no dry clothes to change into, the couple offers him the husband’s flannel nightgown and a blanket. The doctor, after checking the wife and estimating a number of hours of labor ahead, goes to the living room by the fire. Fearing he’s still chilled, the couple decides to make room in their bed for him. After hesitating for a moment, he climbs in next to the husband. After some small talk and an ‘order’ for the soon-to-be mother to lay on her side and have her husband rub her back, the doctor begins to assess the situation he finds himself in: “Right living was not obedience to rule: it was a balance, renewed each instant, like a tight-rope walker’s, a tension between opposites. Here, for a moment, in this bed, in this cottage, in this tiny focus of life, beneath storm and towering sky, was wisdom. Men did not possess wisdom. It possessed them. Like a light, it flickered here and there over the vast dark mass of humanity, illuminating briefly every now and then a single understanding. Here, for the moment, it possessed him; and by its light he gave thanks, and loved all men” (p. 249). After a successful delivery (and some celebratory drink and breakfast), the doctor was off to his town with a promise to return for a checkup. His new friend demurred. “No trouble man. It’s a pleasure—besides being my plain duty. Mind you, she’ll be right as rain. But I’ll come” (p.252), responded the doctor. After a silent handshake, and suddenly finding “eyes full of tears … he clambered into the boat” (p. 252).

“Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates” by Stephen Vincent Benet was originally published in 1929. The story begins with an in-depth description of a humble, impish (having mastered many diversionary tricks), and independent small town doctor and the place he practices, but quickly moves to much larger realms through Benet’s use of magical realism. Doc Mellhorn has died but has not fully landed in his final destination, heaven, and decides to spend a bit of time in hell first because of the perceived lack of opportunity to practice medicine in heaven (and an off-putting encounter with an overly officious clerk at the pearly gates). When he gets to hell, he gets to work on setting up a clinic—“mostly sprains, fractures, bruises and dislocations, of course, with occasional burns and scalds… [reminding him] a good deal of his practice in Steeltown, especially when it came to foreign bodies in the eye” (p.23). After a number of months, and a confrontation with another officious bureaucrat, Doc got back on the road to his original destination, giving him some time to think about whether he was deserving of that final abode. “I’m a doctor. I can’t work miracles,” he thought. “Then the black fit came over him and he remembered all the times he’d been wrong and the people he couldn’t do anything for” (p.28).  Landing for a second time at the pearly gates, he finds family waiting for him with assurances that there’s more than just eternal peace in heaven. “They wouldn’t all arrive in first-class shape," (p.31) explains his Uncle Frank, assuring him that there will be lots of work for him to do. Uncle Frank also lets him know that a delegation is coming to meet him since Doc had “broken pretty near every regulation except fire laws, and refused the Gate first crack” (p. 32). Then, out of a phalanx of famous doctors (from a list that Doc began to create during his first, shortened visit), appeared—with “winged staff entwined with two fangless serpents”-- his top choice--- Aesculapius. “The bearded figure stopped in front of Doc Mellhorn. Welcome brother, said Aesculapius. It’s an honor to meet you, Doctor, said Doc Mellhorn. He shook the outstretched hand. Then he took a silver half dollar from the mouth of the left-hand snake” (p.32). ….I laughed out loud—and couldn’t imagine a better ending.




Commentary

In addition to the 16 stories, this volume includes an introduction by Walter C. Alvarez, MD, a highly respected physician at the time of publication, who in retirement (in 1951) began a widely syndicated column on popular health issues. A number of the stories have been used in medical humanities teaching for many years. “Rab and His Friends” is the only one of the four summarized that I’ve used in teaching, and it was very well received by the small group of first and second year medical students who read it. I have also used “The Enemy” by Pearl Buck and “Two Tragedies” by Anton Chekhov. Another very short story, “Giddiness”, by Karel Capek, is annotated in the database as “Vertigo”, as is the science fiction short story by Cyril Kornbluth, “The Little Black Bag”. Other contributors include: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, W. Somerset Maugham, Richard Wright and Stefan Zweig. As Alvarez says in the introduction, “This is a fine book for anyone who would like an idea of the mental processes and motivations of physicians. In the vernacular, we see in these stories how they tick—and are compelled to tick,” (pg.12). 

Miscellaneous

In seeking out editions of this book, I had in possession for too short a time the 1957 edition, published by Funk (book cover shown on the Database home page) that included remarks from the “famous physicians” who selected the works. These short remarks, set within a prescription pad template, introduce each of the 16 works, adding another contextual layer. An illustrated edition of “Rab and His Friends” is available through the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/dcmsiabooks.rabhisfriends00brow_3/?sp=1). “Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates” can be found here: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/benetsv-midnight06-docmellhorn/benetsv-midnight06-docmellhorn-00-h-dir/benetsv-midnight06-docmellhorn-00-h.html

A Christian video production company created an 18 minute short drama of "Miracle of the Fifteen Murderers" under the title of “Miracle of the Murderers” in 2013 (for information about it see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3245344/mediaviewer/rm2343886080)


Publisher

W.H. Allen

Place Published

London

Edition

1958

Page Count

319