Medicine in literature: Top non-fiction books


In the second of a two-part series, our judges and former winners choose their all-time favourite non-fiction books that explore medicine.

Tessa Hadley (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'The Memory Chalet' by Tony Judt. This brilliant historian was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and though it paralysed his body and brought his early death, it made him hungry to communicate his insights into history and politics in our time, to say the huge things which were most urgent.

'The Good Story' by J M Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz. Novelist and psychoanalyst exchange thoughts on stories and truth and wellbeing.

'Until Further Notice, I Am Alive' by Tom Lubbock. A moving companion piece to Marion Coutts's Wellcome Book Prize-winning memoir of her husband Tom Lubbock's illness and death, 'The Iceberg'. Tom Lubbock was an art critic, luminously intelligent about paintings and about everything.


Frances Balkwill (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot (winner of the 2010 Wellcome Book Prize). An engrossing, original, important and moving story that combines science, ethics and social history.

'Far from the Tree' by Andrew Solomon (winner of the 2014 Wellcome Book Prize). Each chapter is a book in itself - a 'once in a decade' book.

'Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA' by Brenda Maddox. Another side of the 'The Double Helix' story and also a fascinating insight into the life of a female scientist in the 1950s.


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

'Religio Medici' by Sir Thomas Browne. In this eccentric essay the bookish physician meditates on the relationship between 'science' and religion in his virtuoso English baroque prose style.

'The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical history of humanity' by Roy Porter. Exhaustive but never exhausting, detailed but never dense, scholarly but never specialist, this is a textbook that can also be read as a compelling story and as living, relevant history.

'The Anatomy of Melancholy' by Robert Burton. Ostensibly a medical treatise, this vast tome is in fact an encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic discussion of everything under the sun, conducted in Burton's bewitching serious-facetious style.


Damian Barr (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'Somewhere Towards the End' by Diana Athill, which tells the truth about ageing and dying in a clear-eyed non-sentimental but entirely life-enhancing way.

'Dry' by Augusten Burroughs is a memoir about his alcoholism, which manages to be both painful and painfully funny by virtue of his unflinching candour.

'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion took me into a twilit world of grief and loss I hope never to experience myself.


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

'Illness as Metaphor' by Susan Sontag. Because of the beautiful writing, the thoughtfulness and the uncluttered way she shows us that cancer is just a malady, a body gone-wrong thing that can be put right. 'AIDS and Its Metaphors' extends this argument: it isn't a judgement or a metaphor at all; it's just a disease.

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot is one of the most affecting and impassioned books I've ever read about the human origins and human cost of medical breakthrough, and it also offers a piercing insight into poverty and racism.

'Testament of Youth' by Vera Brittain. Because when I was a teenage reader the section describing the visceral shock of going from the safe middle-class world of a 21-year-old at the University of Oxford to being a nursing volunteer (here and also on the Western Front) made a huge impact on me.


Joan Bakewell (2016 Wellcome Book Prize chair)

'Awakenings' by Oliver Sacks.

'Do No Harm' by Henry Marsh (shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize).

'Being Mortal' by Atul Gawande.


Sathnam Sanghera (2016 Wellcome Book Prize judge)

'Surviving Schizophrenia' by E Fuller Torrey. A humane and authoritative guide to a debilitating illness that has hit my family.

'Patient: The true story of a rare illness' by Ben Watt. A deeply moving account of acute illness.

'Awakenings' by Oliver Sacks. One of the best books of all time.