Poet Physicians: An Anthology of Medical Poetry Written by Physicians

McDonough, M. L., ed.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Anthology (Poems)

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Jan-28-2002


This is an anthology of poems written by physicians from ancient times through the early part of the 20th century. It includes a great variety of work: poems by well-known physician-writers like Oliver Goldsmith, John Keats, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and William Carlos Williams; poems by distinguished physicians who are not usually remembered as creative writers, such as Edward Jenner, Erasmus Darwin, S. (Silas) Weir Mitchell, and Sir Charles Sherrington; and others by currently little-known physicians.

In the Preface, the editor admits that the genre of "medical poetry" may not have very high standards. For example, she quotes one author as saying that it is generally "poetry in quotation marks and much of it is feeble stuff." However, poetic expression that arises from clinical experience has dignity and value insofar as it reflects "the spirit of helpfulness which gives to the medical profession its value to humanity." The last quotation is attributed by the editor to William Osler, although she cites no reference. Interestingly, the medical professor as reflected in this anthology is entirely male; of 110 poets represented, not one is a woman.

In an "Afterthought" the physician-poet Merrill Moore comments further on the theme of mixing medicine and poetry, presenting the literary equivalent of some insipid "pearls"; for example, "The way he writes is possibly a little different" and "the physician-poet does not quite reach the peaks of spiritual elation and emotional release . . . that a Byron or a Shelley achieves." Profound, huh?


This book is important primarily from an historical perspective. It is a representative compilation of "medical poetry" written at a time when it was not uncommon for cultured men (but evidently not women!) to express their deep feelings, beliefs, and experiences in verse. Most of these poems have no enduring literary value.

However, some of them do have intrinsic interest and could be used in various teaching contexts. For example, Manuel Acuna's (1849-1973) "Before a Corpse" is a serious meditation on the cycle of life and death. "The Consultation" by William Green Brownson (1830-1899) and "The Doctor" by E.O. Laughlin (born 1867) present, respectively, an ironic and a sentimental view of medical practice. Merrill Moore (born 1903) was a well-known physician-poet of the middle third of the 20th century. He published several volumes of poetry, mostly of sonnets, as represented here by "The Noise That Time Makes."


Charles C. Thomas

Place Published

Springfield, Ill.




Mary Lou McDonough

Page Count