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What King Lear can teach doctors

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, by William Dyce, 1851. National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty

Doctors and novelists have more in common than you might think, says Xi Chen in LitHub. Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a doctor before he wrote about Sherlock Holmes, Anton Chekhov practised medicine alongside playwriting, and James Joyce tried (and failed) to get into medical school three times. When Gertrude Stein was young, the philosopher William James encouraged her to study medicine to give her a better understanding of psychology. Stein agreed but dropped out in her fourth year because she was, according to one professor, “frankly openly bored”.

It’s not surprising that doctors make good writers. “In a single career, a physician amasses thousands of narratives.” They see patients at the height of human suffering and at the height of joy. Somerset Maugham declared he had “learned pretty well everything about human nature” from his five years of medical school. Writing has a lot to offer medicine, too. In the 1960s, American medical schools began integrating literature with lectures on human anatomy. Macbeth became a case study for schizophrenia, King Lear for vascular dementia, and Othello for narcissistic personality disorder. More recently, doctors have been encouraged to focus on what is known as “narrative competence” – to approach their patients’ life stories like “novels-in-progress”. The hope is that the more doctors listen to a patient’s first-person experience, the more they can empathise with them. That may prove yet another way in which these “unexpectedly intertwined professions” benefit each other.