12 Memorable Medical Memoirs

For those of us on the outside of the medical world—who really only interact with it as patients—there’s something mystical and powerful and a little frightening about its practitioners. It’s hard to conceptualize for those of us who haven’t ever had that kind of knowledge. Their skills seem almost magical, for better or worse. For those readers who have spent time in hospitals and are all too familiar with the business ends of medical instruments, there’s an even more complex relationship to medicine. And for those of us who have not experienced either in any significant way, the whole field can be shrouded in mystery. Regardless of your position in relation to the subject matter, this list of medical memoirs will have a perspective with which you can engage.




When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 

In this memoir, 36-year-old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He was writing through the experience when he died from it in 2015, and some of the questions that he begins to answer in its pages include: “What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?” The book is both inspiring and realistic, concrete in its dilemmas and moving for the reader.



Complications by Atul Gawande 

Atul Gawande explores the imperfect science of surgery in these 14 essays. As a surgeon himself, he tells the stories of his personal experience, but more than that, he states that nearly always, doctors are presented as either heroes or villains. In this book, he shows that they are people despite that they can sometimes do heroic things, that surgery is complicated, decisions are complex, and there is no sure treatment for anything. This book provides new perspectives to those who are not in the medical field, and it provides validation to those who are.



Anyone who loves reading about medicine, whether it’s from the perspective of the practitioners or the patients, should take a look at this list of medical memoirs. There’s bound to be something special for you here.


Mary Kay McBrayer is a horror enthusiast, sideshow lover, and prose writer from south of Atlanta. Her true crime novel, America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster is available for pre-order, and you can hear her analysis (and jokes) about scary movies on the podcast, Everything Trying to Kill You. You can read her tweets @mkmcbrayer.