Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

13 Non-Fiction Books About Medicine

One of the universal inevitabilities of life is that, at some point, we will all require medical attention. Whether it’s disease, injury, pregnancy, or even just a basic check-up, we are all thrown at the mercy of medicine sometimes. But how much do you actually know about the practice? Unless you studied medicine or a related field (or watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy), chances are your knowledge is limited to your personal experiences. That’s where books can fill the gap. Non-fiction books about medicine can reveal insights from many perspectives: patients, doctors, corporations, witnesses… Here’s a list of the best non-fiction books about medicine, as broad and encompassing as I can make it.

13 Non-Fiction Books About Medicine - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You probably don’t have much cause to wonder about how medical treatments are made, how they decide that the ibuprofen you pop for a headache or the shot that vaccinates you against nasties is safe. That will all change when you read The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, one of the essential books about medicine for any recipient of its treatments. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! You’ll find yourself thinking of a poor, black tobacco farmer every time you visit the pharmacist for the rest of your life. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

Confessions Of A GP by Benjamin Daniels

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Few non-fiction books about medicine pique our interest and sate our curiosity about the fringe elements of humanity than the GP memoir. General practitioners see it all: young, old, rich, poor, sick, very sick – wherever you fall on any spectrum, they’re the first stop for your healthcare. Benjamin Daniels is one such practitioner, and in his role as a family doctor, he sees endless banality punctured by occasional exciting eccentricities. Take the woman troubled by pornographic dreams about Tom Jones for instance, a nice break from the parade of patients demanding antibiotics for viral infections. Confessions Of A GP is a great primer on the real day-to-day of doctoring.

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

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“OK, take a deep breath, and count backwards from ten…” So goes every television scene where a character is put under anaesthesia, but what actually happens in a real medical setting? Anaesthesia is one of the non-fiction books about medicine that goes deep into one particular specialty, albeit one that touches many others. Kate Cole-Adams explores 150 years of putting people to sleep (or, in the traditional definition of the word, ‘rendering insensible’), and the surgical interventions that have been made possible as a result. What will really freak you out, though, is how little we actually know about this routine aspect of medical care. You’d think that being cut open would be the scary part of surgery, but maybe it’s the sleep that will get you!

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America and in Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe carefully examines how the actions of the Sackler family were the catalyst for this catastrophe. This is one of the chunkier non-fiction books about medicine, but it’s every bit as compelling as a well-written multi-generational epic. This book is essential to understanding one of the biggest crises facing the medical community in the 21st century. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota

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We’ve largely romanticised the culture of overwork and burnout in young doctors (see: television dramas that conveniently condense the exhaustion of interns and residents into delightful montages). Emotional Female is Yumiko Kadota’s account of the real trauma inflicted by the industry in the name of ‘toughening up’ its newest recruits, a reckoning for the field of medicine and everyone who benefits from it. What’s more, she exposes the sexism that still runs rampant in hospitals and surgeries. Kadota felt the weight of responsibility of saving lives, and couldn’t reconcile it with the pressures of the seventy-hour weeks and being called ‘too emotional’ by the supervisors charged with her education.

Stiff by Mary Roach

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Medicine is all about keeping bodies breathing, keeping them alive – but what happens to bodies once the best efforts have been exhausted? In Stiff, Mary Roach explores “the curious life of human cadavers”, what happens to our shells when we shuffle off the mortal coil. One of the great ironies is that many of the medical advances that keep us alive are only possible thanks to the remains of those they would have benefited had they been developed earlier. If you’ve ever considered donating your body to science, this is one of the non-fiction books about medicine you should read to help you decide whether it’s something you want to do.

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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Braiding together memoir and science, Gabrielle Jackson explores the ways in which social structures—specifically, the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, in Pain And Prejudice. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Using her own experience as a starting point (diagnosed with endometriosis in 2001, then adenomyosis in 2015), Jackson offers a testament to suffering that has been silenced for centuries. This is one of the essential non-fiction books about medicine for understanding the field through a feminist lens. Read my full review of Pain And Prejudice here.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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Usually, non-fiction books about medicine come from one of two perspectives: that of the doctor, or that of the patient. In When Breath Becomes Air, the two merge, as Paul Kalanithi enters the final stages of his training as a neurosurgeon right as he’s diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. But Kalanithi doesn’t just offer us ‘grass is greener’ platitudes about the saviour needing saving. He generously shares a philosophical reckoning with the meaning of life and the purpose we assign to our time on earth. He sadly died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on.

Triple Helix by Lauren Burns

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Medicine hasn’t just evolved to keep us alive; it’s evolved to help us create life, too. You surely know or have heard about ‘miracle babies’, donor-conceived and born through assisted fertility treatment. It seems to be the happy ending to a sad story, but for these babies the story is just beginning. What becomes of them when they grow up? Lauren Burns is one such ‘miracle baby’ – a donor-conceived person – and Triple Helix is the story of her search for her biological father. It’s a deeply personal account of the lived experience of a medical miracle, and the consequences of medical advances that perhaps weren’t thoroughly thought through. Read my full review of Triple Helix here.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

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This Is Going To Hurt is one of the most popular non-fiction books about medicine in recent memory. It’s sold million of copies around the world, and it’s been adapted for the screen – not to mention the forthcoming follow-up. Adam Kay kept haphazard but detailed diaries of his time as a first-year doctor, and he has compiled them for our entertainment and edification. He describes 90+ hour weeks, “tsunamis of bodily fluids”, and all the other less-than-glamourous aspects of life as a junior medical man. This memoir is “hilarious, horrifying, and heartbreaking by turns”, and a must-read for anyone considering a career in medicine.

The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

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For all it has given us, medicine has an ugly history of stripping the freedom and dignity from some of the most vulnerable members of society. In The Woman They Could Not Silence, Kate Moore offers an account of one such transgression, that of a 19th century woman cast to the side by her husband. It was an era where women could all-too-easily succumb to the label of ‘crazy’, and find themselves institutionalised on the flimsiest of grounds. Of course, women and other marginalised groups still experience this kind of discrimination, but examining our history informs our understanding of how to dismantle these systems of oppression. Not all non-fiction books about medicine are a laugh riot, this one proves it, but the confronting ones are critical reading.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

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Bad Blood combines the best of books about medicine and books about true crime. Elizabeth Holmes has made many headlines, first for the miraculous advances of her company, Theranos, in the business of detecting and diagnosing disease via blood tests, and second, for being unveiled as a complete fraud. John Carreyrou was the journalist who first exposed the extent of her deception, and this book is a complete account – from start to finish – of how this house of cards came tumbling down. We’d like to think of medicine as a healing art, but ultimately (thank you capitalism) it’s a trillion-dollar industry, and inevitably there will be operators who take advantage. Read my full review of Bad Blood here.

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd

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Medicine doesn’t end with our last breath. Some of our most essential medical personnel are those who work with our bodies after we’re dead. Richard Shepherd is one of them, a forensic pathologist tasked with uncovering reasons for a death that aren’t immediately clear. His job gives closure to families grieving an unexpected loss, evidence to courts seeking the truth of a crime, and the final messages of the dead to the world. Beginning with his first autopsy in medical school, and tracing his career across thousands of cadavers and corpses, Unnatural Causes is a stunning account of a side of medicine we’re not always comfortable thinking about, but as essential as heart surgery or writing prescriptions.

2 Comments

  1. Have a real fascination with this theme of non-fic. Adding to this list two from the patient side of the fence. ‘Ask Me About My Uterus’ by Abby Norman, which details her push for an endometriosis diagnosis, which as for many women, involved jumping through miles of hoops on fire. Snaps for the great title as well. Katerina Byrant’s memoir ‘Hysteria’ is interesting too.

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