Medicine in literature: Top fiction books


The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates medicine in literature. In the first of a two-part series, we ask some of our judges and former winners to pick their all-time favourite fiction books that touch on this fascinating topic.

Medicine in literature: Top fiction books

Andrea Gillies (winner of the 2009 Wellcome Book Prize for 'Keeper')

'The Citadel' by A J Cronin. A completely engrossing novel about a provincial doctor's struggle to do his best in pre-1948, pre-National Health Service Britain - a well-disguised polemic dressed up brilliantly as a popular narrative.

'The Magic Mountain' by Thomas Mann. For the way he uses tuberculosis as a metaphor for the intellectual crisis in Western Europe in the years surrounding the Great War.

'George's Marvellous Medicine' by Roald Dahl. Because it's hilariously naughty, and because it's amazing that a children's book offering methods of poisoning your granny remains unbanned!


Sathnam Sanghera (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'Family Matters' by Rohinton Mistry. Nariman Vakeel is a 79-year-old Parsi widower beset by Parkinson's disease and haunted by memories of the past. A brilliant novel from our finest living writer.

'To Rise Again at a Decent Hour' by Joshua Ferris is one of my favourite books of recent times. It gets rather bogged down at times in theology, but in dentist and atheist Paul O'Rourke, who finds himself being impersonated online, Ferris has created one of the funniest narrators in recent literary history.

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey. A must for anyone interested in mental illness.


Thomas Wright (winner of the 2012 Wellcome Book Prize for 'Circulation')

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley. This seminal science-fiction novel - in which Victor Frankenstein studies medicine at university as a part of his natural philosophy course - is animated by ideas concerning 'science' so suggestive they remain contemporary today.

'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson. This gripping and vivid evocation of the split personality of Dr Jekyll offers insights into the relationship between rationality and passion inside the scientific mind.

'A Study in Scarlet' by Arthur Conan Doyle. In this first Sherlock Holmes story we're introduced to Dr Watson, whose medical skill and experiences as a physician are of great assistance to the consulting detective over the course of his career.


Damian Barr (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'The Farewell Symphony' by Edmund White. This semi-autobiographical novel follows 'A Boy's Own Story' and 'The Beautiful Room is Empty' and charts first-hand the devastating advent of AIDS.

'Owls Do Cry' by Janet Frame describes a poor family in New Zealand unmade then remade by a daughter's struggle with mental illness. Guaranteed to make you bawl.

'The Plague' by Albert Camus has been reprised many times, and never more than in our apocalypse-obsessed now, but the original remains the most compelling and disturbing.


Joan Bakewell (2016 Wellcome Book Prize chair)

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon.

'The Doctor's Dilemma' by George Bernard Shaw.

'The Gambler' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


Tessa Hadley (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'Doctor Faustus' by Thomas Mann. A superb novel about music and fascism: Mann was always fascinated by the relationships between illness and art.

John Keats's fragment of verse, written when his tuberculosis was far advanced, 'This living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold...'.

'The Optimist's Daughter' by Eudora Welty. I'm cheating slightly - but it does begin with an eye operation, and then bereavement. Marvellously funny and sad.