Medical Writing

While I was a student nurse in England I won a prize for psychology studies: It was the latest book by A. E. Clark-Kennedy, Patients as People, published by Faber and Faber. His earlier work, Medicine in its Human Setting had already proved that disease, medicine, and care, with the use of story, could be understandable and accessible to medical and nursing students alike. These books, following patients as people who succumbed to illness, allowed me to see diseases for the first time as Clark-Kennedy taught: The patient is real, the disease an abstraction.• Now I could follow a disease’s progression from its beginning symptoms to end completion.

Archibald Clark-Kennedy was an imposing man, strikingly tall and athletic. He enjoyed long-distance and cross-country running and, in his nineties, still rode a ten-speed tricycle to dine at Corpus Christi College.

He was a life-enthusiast who possessed a deeply inquiring mind. Though very physical in behavior, he trained his body to the stillness needed at the bedside of his patients, while his mind remained free for diagnosis, clinical teaching, and writing. ‘Archie has a spark of the divine fire which makes the elect of any profession.’ * He was a student, then colleague, of Sir Arthur Ellis who possibly handed his student the works of the famous physician-writers which inspired Clarke-Kennedy to write as well as he did. Was the inspiration from a story by Anton Chekhov, the father of modern medical writing, who once wrote, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress”? Or did it come from John Keats – the poet who embraced and then struggled with a medical career which would have saved him and his family from their inherited poverty? Longing to be free to write his poetry, Keats wrestled with his soul before abandoning Chekhov’s ‘good wife’ to run into the arms of his ‘mistress’ poetry.

The American medical writer, Richard Selzer, speaks of the same struggle: the early torment and doubts of renouncing surgery as he took up his pen to write fifteen books and numerous articles.

Although – in The Prologue of The Bell Lap – my Dr. Riley came from Ireland, he did not venture into literature or poetry. Instead, as a student of Clark- Kennedy’s, he read, listened and learnt well the importance of patients as people. In life, Dr. Riley rejected the coveted prize of a consultantship at the London Teaching Hospital and chose instead the path of General Practitioner.

I think for nurse-writers the struggle – as many things are – is quieter, though no less determined. In whose footsteps do we follow? Who lights the candle so that we may tread safely, even firmly, through illness, life and into literature? It was my nursing tutor, Sister Boisher, who handed me the slim Patients as People. It is a book I love, and has stayed close by my side, traveling from home to home since 1962.

It is the seed that germinated The Bell Lap and gave me the courage to allow experience to rise from buried memory and emerge as story.

* A. E. Clark-Kennedy Obituary CWM MBJ Volume 291 21 September 1985

* Archibald Edmund Clark-Kennedy. Royal College of Physicians. BLH. Munks Roll Volume V111

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