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Five of the best... Doctors in fiction

Post date: 01/04/2015 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 18/05/2020

By John Mullan, head of English at UCL and Guardian columnist.



Esther Summerson, the heroine of Dickens’s Bleak House, is very good indeed, so who will be a suitable love interest? The “dark young surgeon" Allan Woodcourt qualifies. “He was, night and day, at the service of numbers of poor people and did wonders of gentleness and skill for them...” He goes off to China and India to help even poorer people and returns for the happy ending.



Try to forget Omar Sharif: in Boris Pasternak’s novel, Yuri Zhivago is a humane doctor and ultra-sensitive poet who lives through the horror of Russian history in the 20th century. Lara, the love of his life, is not only beautiful and brilliant, she is a volunteer nurse during the First World War. Their love blooms in a field hospital.



Dr John Watson, fresh from service as an army surgeon in Afghanistan, is taken on by Sherlock Holmes as a flatmate to be "a whetstone for his mind". Conan Doyle had to make Holmes's stooge (and the narrator of all his detective adventures) a doctor. He is trustworthy, loyal, benevolent and literal-minded. And his experience as a doctor has taught him to talk to the ladies.



The gentle hero of Hugh Lofting’s children’s books is clearly supposed to be good, and he is certainly well liked where he lives and works, in the quiet English village of Puddleby-on the-Marsh. But he does grow to like animals rather more than people, and his patients are eventually frightened off by his swelling menagerie.



Surprisingly enough, the staff at Dunsinane includes a wise physician who, though ignorant of his employers’ dark deeds, watches Lady Macbeth sleepwalking and knows she has done something bad. “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles”. The “good doctor”, as he is called, tells Macbeth he has no cure to offer.

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