The Last Physician

Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine

The Last Physician

Book Pages: 184 Illustrations: Published: October 1999

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Medicine and Health > Medical Humanities

Walker Percy brought to his novels the perspective of both a doctor and a patient. Trained as a doctor at Columbia University, he contracted tuberculosis during his internship as a pathologist at Bellevue Hospital and spent the next three years recovering, primarily in TB sanitoriums. This collection of essays explores not only Percy’s connections to medicine but also the underappreciated impact his art has had—and can have—on medicine itself.
The contributors—physicians, philosophers, and literary critics—examine the relevance of Percy’s work to current dilemmas in medical education and health policy. They reflect upon the role doctors and patients play in his novels, his family legacy of depression, how his medical background influenced his writing style, and his philosophy of psychiatry. They contemplate the private ways in which Percy’s work affected their own lives and analyze the author’s tendency to contrast the medical-scientific worldview with a more spiritual one. Assessing Percy’s stature as an author and elucidating the many ways that reading and writing can combine with diagnosing and treating to offer an antidote to despair, they ask what it means to be a doctor, a writer, and a seeker of cures and truths—not just for the body but for the malaise and diseased spirituality of modern times.
This collection will appeal to lovers of literature as well as medical professionals—indeed, anyone concerned with medical ethics and the human side of doctoring.

Contributors. Robert Coles, Brock Eide, Carl Elliott, John D. Lantos, Ross McElwee, Richard Martinez, Martha Montello, David Schiedermayer, Jay Tolson, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman


“[An] impressive collection. . . . The contributors . . . reveal deeply personal responses to Percy’s work—not just intellectual and aesthetic appreciation but much more profound heartfelt reactions. . . . The Last Physician will certainly engage Percy fans and it should also challenge and inspire others to read his work.” — Carol Donley , Medical Humanities Review

“[T]he collection as a whole helps to explore how medicine influenced Percy’s art and how Percy’s art might yet influence medicine.” — Gary M. Ciuba , Mississippi Quarterly

“[T]hese essays will amply reward readers interested, as the writers are, in relationships between Percy and medicine—or Percy and medical readers. . . . [T]his collection incrementally demonstrates how reading Walker Percy can help those humane, uneasy souls who gaze upon medicine and its morals and find, as he did, that practice is not perfect.” — Peter W. Graham , JAMA

“Elliott and Lantos bring together the refreshingly candid examinations of medical professionals who are sensitive to Walker Percy’s penchant for blending the psychological and spiritual dimensions of health. . . . These writers have closed the gap between the hard sciences and the soft humanities in an instructive and readable fashion.” — S. R. Whited , Choice

“There is much in The Last Physician that will be familiar to readers of Percy—the diagnostic stance that he adopted in writing, his wariness that experts were usurping personal sovereignty, and the trouble that his alienated characters come through. There is also much new insight that will open Percy’s work in fresh ways to readers of Christianity and Literature, who like Percy are concerned with the meaning of life even as it is lived out on an ordinary, and so terrible, Wednesday afternoon.” — J. Robert Baker , Christianity and Literature

"[A] collection of essays most interesting for its insights into the personal connections between Percy and medicine."

— John D. Sykes Jr. , Journal of the NABPR

"[A] sophisticated and engaging discussion of a practice and discourse that has more intricacies than first meet the eye." — Yumna Siddiqi, symploke

The Last Physician offers the pleasure of Walker Percy’s companionship in leading an examined life. The authors talk with and through Percy’s characters about medicine, about art and suffering, and about how their lives became richer as they acknowledge their share of the world’s troubles.” — Arthur W. Frank, author of At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness and the Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethi

“For Walker Percy’s fans and for readers who are just discovering his work, The Last Physician provides an explanation for why his stories were so seminal in the maturation of many an adult and many an aspiring physician. The issues he wrestled with in his fiction—isolation, ambivalence, alienation—are just as important in today’s society. The Last Physician is proof that Walker Percy’s work will endure, will continue to stimulate discussion, and will continue to inspire generations to come.” — Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner: A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Carl Elliott is Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of A Philosophical Disease: Bioethics, Culture, and Identity and The Rules of Insanity: Moral Responsibility and Mental Illness.

John D. Lantos is Associate Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Do We Still Need Doctors? and coeditor of Primum Non Nocere Today.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction/ Carl Elliot 1

Dr. Percy's Hold on Medicine/ Robert Coles 9

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes/ Ross McElwee 16

Why Doctors Make Good Protagonists/ John Lantos 38

From Eye to Ear in Percy's Fiction: Changing the Paradigm for Clinical Medicine/ Martha Montello 46

Prozac and the Existential Novel: Two Therapies/ Carl Elliot 59

Ethics in the Ruins/ David Schiedermayer 70

Walker Percy and Medicine: The Struggle for Recovery in Medical Education/ Richard Martinez 81

Now You are One of Us: Gender, Reversal, and the Good Read/ Laurie Zoloth 96

Inherited Depression, Medicine, and Illness in Walker Percy's Art/ Bertram Wyatt-Brown 112

Pathology Rounds with Dr. Percy: The Modern Malaise, Its Causes and Cure Brock Eide 134

Walker Percy, Reluctant Physician/ Jay Tolson 150

Afterword: Writing and Rewriting Stories/ John Lantos 160

Contributors 163

Index 165
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2369-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2336-5
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