Jacob Needleman

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The Way of the Physician

Needleman, Jacob

Last Updated: Dec-02-2013
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Jacob Needleman, a philosopher concerned with "applying philosophy to the questions of everyday life," taught medical ethics at San Francisco State University (SFSU). In this highly personal book he addresses what it means to be a "good doctor" and the role of physicians in contemporary society. The book is structured as a series of imaginary letters addressed to his childhood idol, the physician who treated him when he was 12 years old.

The aged Dr. Kaufman responds to these letters, although we see only the philosopher’s side of the correspondence. Toward the end of the book, Needleman makes a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to visit his ailing mentor. They talk for a while, then when the old man takes a nap, Needleman spends the rest of the day conversing with Dr. Kaufman’s daughter, a pediatrician who in some sense represents the "good" medicine of the future, just as her father represented the "good" medicine of the past.

In these letters the author addresses the deep questions of character and motivation in the form of a personal narrative. He recalls his experiences as a boy, his ambition to become a doctor, and several incidents from his life as an autopsy assistant and hospital orderly. For example, there is the bizarre story of the young man transporting an amputated leg by elevator; he accidentally drops the leg to the floor and the wrappings flip open, much to the astonishment of others on the elevator.

"People don’t trust science; people trust people." (p. 15) Similarly, Jacob Needleman writes, people don’t trust or distrust medicine as an institution; they trust or distrust doctors. "To be a good doctor, one must first of all be a good (person). And to be a good (person) one has to begin by discovering in oneself the desire for truth . . . truth is the only effective force." (p. 68)

To facilitate this quest for truth, Needleman describes in these letters a four-seminar sequence he teaches at SFSU: "To whom is the physician responsible?," "The art of living and the art of medicine," "Care," and "The financial disease of modern medicine." (pp. 71-72) Through these seminars the author hopes to re-awaken in prospective physicians the quest for truth, and the possibility of care, that he believes have been submerged by technology and infected by the financial disease. Dr. Kaufman’s daughter serves as a real-life example of the possibility of cultivating the contemporary version of the "good doctor."

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