Richard Selzer’s memoir is subtitled “A Doctor Comes of Age.” The book is structured around childhood memories, interspersed with stories from more recent times. Selzer’s father, a general practitioner in Troy, New York, serves as the focal point for most of his early memories--a commanding figure of warmth and goodness in his son’s life: “If I have failed to describe father… it is because none of his features did him justice. I should have had to mention wings in order to do that.” (p. 152)

While his father brought science into Selzer’s life, his mother represented the world of art. She was an amateur singer with a “small pure soprano voice” (p. 15), as well as being the doctor’s wife. After the doctor’s death from a massive heart attack when Selzer was 12 years old, his mother had numerous suitors, at least some of whom she eventually married. When he went to college, she began a life-long practice of writing her younger son (Selzer has an older brother William) weekly letters, including such advice as “Rise and flee the reeling faun,” “You do not take enough chances” and “You must learn to be absurd.” (p.227)

Toward the end of Down from Troy, Selzer writes of his parents, “Of all the satisfactions of my life, the greatest is that I have at last fulfilled each of their ambitions.” (p. 251) This is in reference to his having practiced both surgery and writing. He goes on to enumerate the many unexpected similarities between the two professions. The book ends with a narrative that brings together narrative and medicine, the story of a retired surgeon who reaches out to help a young man dying of AIDS.


Warmth, humor, generosity, and love characterize just about every page of Down from Troy. Selzer gives us sparkling portrayals of his parents, especially of his father, an urban and highly educated version of the old country doctor.

A number of individual sections or chapters of this memoir might well serve as engaging texts for medical students and residents. For example, chapter 5 recounts Selzer’s only experience as a defendant in a malpractice trial (the outcome should cheer today’s anxiety-stricken trainees), the latter part of chapter 4 presents his theory of the ‘good’ hospital, and chapter 13 is an engaging narrative of physician assisted suicide.


William Morrow

Place Published

New York





Page Count