Written by Joanna Hughes

Sure, you’ll be reading plenty of books on anatomy, physiology, and organic chemistry during your time in medical school. But these are far from the only things you need to know to succeed as a medical student. Whether you’re looking to improve your application or to enrich your perspective of living your life in the most meaningful way as a doctor, here’s a closer look at seven must-read books for future physicians.

The House of God
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1. The House of God by Samuel Shem

When The House of God was published in 1978, its searing autobiographical representation of life as a medical intern -- written by psychiatrist Stephen Bergman under the pseudonym of Samuel Shem -- was dismissed by many leading physicians as both scandalous and meritless.

It quickly grew into a cult phenomenon. Says the NY Times of the book’s ongoing appeal and impact, “What makes The House of God singularly compelling is its brutally honest portrayal of the absurd tragedies and occasional triumphs of hospital life; the once-common abuse of young physicians by their superiors; and the anger and frustration these interns directed at themselves and patients.”  

“Over the years, it has served as a required guidebook for medical neophytes and a clarion call for the old guard to make striking changes in the way we train young physicians,” continues the New York Times.  

Cutting for Stone
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2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Written by Ethiopian-born medical doctor Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone tells the saga of two orphaned twin brothers and their journeys to becoming doctors.

Says NPR’s Lynn Neary in choosing Cutting for Stone as one of her "Best Books For a Book Club" in 2009, “Verghese, a practicing physician, spares no details in revealing the inner workings of the world of medicine. His descriptions of often complex medical procedures are both harrowing and fascinating...This book is very much about what it means to be a doctor and what it takes to be a good one.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
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3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

A memoir by editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly details Bauby’s life after suffering a massive stroke, lapsing into a coma, and emerging with locked-in syndrome -- that is, paralyzed, speechless, and able to communicate only by blinking his left eye.

“By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body….This book is a lasting testament to his life,” says Bookreporter.  

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
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4. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks

That the brain is a fascinating thing is no more compellingly evidenced than by acclaimed neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’s -- hailed by the New York Times as “one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century" -- detailing of his patient case studies.

Says Goodreads, “If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks's splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do. A great healer, Sacks never loses sight of medicine's ultimate responsibility: ‘the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject.’”

Mountains Beyond Mountains
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5. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains follows the admirable ascent of doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer from poor child to Harvard student to “world-class Robin Hood,” who devoted his life to sharing his knowledge of infectious diseases and modern medicine with people in great need.

“This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created, as Farmer—brilliant, charismatic, charming, both a leader in international health and a doctor who finds time to make house calls in Boston and the mountains of Haiti—blasts through convention to get results,” says Goodreads.

Adds A Civil Action author Jonathan Harr, "[Farmer] wants to change the world. Certainly this luminous and powerful book will change the way you see it."

The Emperor of all Maladies
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6. The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

In awarding this remarkable book the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, the jury declared,The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane 'biography' of cancer—from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence….Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.”

Reveals Stanford medical student Akhilesh Pathipati of the book’s influence on his career choice, “I first read this book in college, and it single-handedly made me excited about going into medicine. Although billed as a ‘biography of cancer,’ the book is really a collection of biographies about the people who have fought it, including patients, researchers, and clinicians. It reads as an epic battle to not only understand cancer but to conquer human fallibility. And after reading it, I wanted to become a physician to join the effort.”

When Breath Becomes Air
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7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 36 and died at age 37. When Breath Becomes Air details the year in between, during which Kalanithi pondered the “many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world.”

Says The Guardian of this revelatory memoir, “It is a book that leaves its reader full-hearted: at once wishing that it had never been written, and yet moved and enriched by its humanity and accomplishment.”

Do you have another inspiring or insightful book that helped you get through medical school or changed the way you think about the profession? If so, please share in the comments section.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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