The greatest doctor in all of literature? Why, that’s Dr. Seuss, of course. Theodor Seuss Geisel wasn’t a medical doctor, although the medical school at Dartmouth College is the Geisel School of Medicine). And he didn’t earn a PhD, although he intended to obtain one in English literature after graduating from Dartmouth. Instead, while at Oxford, he met a woman named Helen Palmer, who would become his wife. She encouraged him to give up his notion of becoming an English teacher and instead pursue a career in drawing.
Thank you, Helen Palmer.
I find that particularly interesting because I had a Helen Palmer in my life, too. Mrs. Palmer actually WAS an English teacher—11th grade expository composition, if I remember correctly. She nominated one of my essays—about my love of baseball, actually—for an award, which worked out well, which gave me self-belief, which set me on a course to becoming a professional writer.
Again, thank you, Helen Palmer.
But while Dr. Seuss is the greatest doctor in literature, he’s not the most memorable doctor WITHIN literature. That’s what this post is about—the MDs and PhDs, the heroes and villains, the good doctors and bad doctors who populate the pages of books.
The spectrum of literary doctors is broad. It can mean paragons of evil like Dr. No and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Or doctors of heroic stock like Sinclair Lewis’s Martin Arrowsmith and Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin. It can mean murder suspects (Dr. Edward George Armstrong in And Then There Were None), time travelers (Dr. Jim Parsons in Dr. Futurity), and protagonists who come across as lovable (Doc Ricketts in Cannery Row), whimsical (Dr. Dolittle) and complicated (Dr. Jekyll, anyone?). It can even mean symbolic literary devices like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby.
So here’s your prescription from the Why Not 100—43 unforgettable doctors in literature, starting with the first 15:
1. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)
The epitome of the eccentric scientist—grave robber, life-giver, tragic figure, coward, creator of Frankenstein’s monster (so often incorrectly referenced as simply Frankenstein). Years later, his grandson (played by Gene Wilder) will insist, “It’s pronounced Fronk-en-steen!”
2. Dr. John H. Watson (A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle)
As the first-person narrator of all but four stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, the “Watson” has come to be represent a vital character in most mysteries—a person privy to the facts of the case but not yet the conclusions drawn. Did you know that his first name is mentioned on only three occasions?
3. Dr. Fu-Manchu (The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer)
Not only did he claim to hold doctorates from four universities… not only is the archetype of the evil criminal genius, appearing in a series of novels, films, television shows, and comic books for nearly a century… not only was he appropriated as a stereotype for “Yellow Peril” thrillers… he also lent his name to an iconic mustache.
4. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon, Thomas Harris)
A brilliant psychiatrist who just happens to be a murderous cannibal. In 2003, he was chosen by the American Film Institute as the #1 movie villain—The Silence of the Lambs being Harris’s sequel to Red Dragon. In the third and fourth novels, he becomes a protagonist and then an antihero.
5. Doc Ricketts (Cannery Row, John Steinbeck)
Both Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck studied life’s quirky interactions. Ricketts did it by exploring tide pools to fill the shelves of Pacific Biological Laboratories. Steinbeck, on the other hand, directed his attentions to the denizens of his hometown. Cannery Row was his tide pool; lyrical prose was his experiment; Ricketts was his real-life muse.
6. Dr. Henry Jekyll (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson)
One half of the physical manifestation of the psychological battle within. Jekyll is described as a "large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty with something of a stylish cast.” Mr. Edward Hyde, his alter-ego is smaller, younger, much crueler. Interesting fact: It was originally pronounced “Jeekul” (from Stevenson’s native Scotland).
He is a Dutch doctor/vampire hunter with, according to Stoker, "an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, and indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats, these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind.”
8. Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak)
A poet in a brutal world. A paragon of sensitivity amid war and revolution. A physician surrounded by death and destruction. A living representation of the fragility of idealism. And the story of the book’s publication is similarly profound. After the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
9. Dr. Christian Szell (Marathon Man, William Goldman)
After the performance of this former Nazi dentist at Auschwitz and erstwhile diamond smuggler, we will never look at dentists (or thanks to the film, Laurence Olivier) the same again? The torture scene involving tooth-drilling without anesthetic is one of those hard-to-watch, impossible-to-forget moments. “Is it safe?”
10. Doc Daneeka (Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
How can you not love the character who first explains the “Catch-22” preventing men from removing themselves from combat? “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.”
11. Dr. John Dolittle (The Story of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting)
If you could talk to the animals, just imagine it! He loses his wealth and most of his human friends because of his love of animals and his growing menagerie. But when his parrot teaches him how to converse with beasts, the adventures begin. Dolittle does a lot, including curing a monkey epidemic and defeating pirates.
12. Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
We see him only through his eyes—a billboard promoting an optometrist. They are neglected but all-seeing, and they watch over the themes of the book: spiritual abandonment, corruption, the empty American Dream. “But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
13. Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells)
So he likes to create human-animal hybrids—dog-men, ape-men, hog-men, leopard-men (he calls them Beast Folk)—through animal vivisection. Is that so wrong? I mean, he used to be a distinguished London physiologist until he fled scandal by escaping civilized society. Dr. Dolittle meets Dr. Frankenstein.
14. Dr. Stephen Maturin (Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian)
Ship’s surgeon, naturalist, spy, musician, drug addict, torture survivor, crack shot, swordsman, romantic, frequent man overboard.
15. Dr. Julius No (Dr. No, Ian Fleming)
A villain inspired by Dr. Fu-Manchu. Just your basic reclusive Chinese-German who lives on an island, runs a guano mine and burns trespassers to death with a “dragon” that is actually a flame-throwing armored swamp buggy.
And the best of the rest:
16. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis)
17. Dr. Faustus (The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe)
18. Dr. Jim Parsons (Dr. Futurity, Philip K. Dick)
19. Dr. Charles Bovary (Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert)
20. Dr. Tertius Lydgate (Middlemarch, George Eliot)
21. Dr. Dick Diver (Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
22. Dr. Henry Perowne (Saturday, Ian McEwan)
23. Dr. Benway (Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs)
24. Dr. Bernard Rieux (The Plague, Albert Camus)
25. Dr. Edward George Armstrong (And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie)
26. Dr. John Quimper (4:50 from Paddington, Agatha Christie)
27. Dr. Mark Hall (The Andromeda Strain, Michael Chrichton)
28. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (The House of Dr. Edwardes, Frances Beeding)
29. Dr. Andrei Ragin (Ward 6, Anton Chekhov)
30. Dr. Edwin Spindrift (The Doctor is Sick, Anthony Burgess)
31. Dr. Pangloss (Candide, Voltaire)
32. Dr. Tod T. Friendly (Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis)
33. Dr. Andrew Manson (The Citadel, A.J. Cronin)
34. Dr. Thomas Stockman (An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen)
35. Dr. Harry Wilbourne (The Wild Palms, William Faulkner)
36. Dr. John (Villette, Charlotte Bronte)
37. Dr. Allan Woodcourt (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)
38. Dr. Thorne (Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope)
39. Dr. Adelia Aguilar (Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin)
40. Dr. John “Mossy” Lawn (Night Watch, Terry Prachett)
41. Dr. Finlay (Country Doctor, A.J. Cronin)
42. Dr. Jack Stapleton (Blindsight, Robin Cook)
43. Doctor of Physic (Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer)