Jerome Groopman is the Recanati Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Chief of Experimental Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He has published more than 180 scientific articles and is a staff writer at The New Yorker and, most recently, the coauthor with ­Pamela Hartzband of Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You.
 (March 2016)

A Doctor’s Body Language

Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975
It was the first day of medical school, and I was about to dissect the corpse of a middle-aged woman. Like all the cadavers in the anatomy lab, her head, hands, and feet were covered by gauze. The instructor pointed to an exposed arm and showed me how to cut …

The Victory of Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, New York City, 2000
Oliver Sacks inspired my efforts as a physician-writer, as he has for so many others. I am, in a sense, one of his students. Now, in settings like my seminar, his work inspires the next generation to think and create. His writing, like the light from a distant star, will continue to illuminate the lives of his readers, long after its source is extinguished.

There’s No Way Out of It!

Peter Paul Rubens: Achilles Dipped into the River Styx, circa 1630–1635
My mother and father feared debility and death due to pathogens. They were raised in immigrant New York neighborhoods at a time when diphtheria, typhoid, and tuberculosis were rife. The idea of preventing or curing dreaded infectious diseases “naturally,” relying on the body alone, hardly entered our minds. But two generations later, such ideas have considerable traction in our society.

When Doctors Admit They Went Wrong

Terrence Holt, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2009
On a sultry June morning in 1976, wearing a starched white coat and tightly knotted tie, I entered the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was my first day of internship, the moment when I would become a real doctor after four years of medical school. I had been a driven student, …

How Memory Speaks

Roy Lichtenstein: The Melody Haunts My Reverie, 1965
I began writing these words on what appeared to be an unremarkable Sunday morning. Shortly before sunrise, the bedroom still dim, I awoke and quietly made my way to the kitchen, careful not to disturb my still-sleeping wife. The dark-roast coffee was retrieved from its place in the pantry, four scoops then placed in a filter. While the coffee was brewing, I picked up The New York Times at the door. Scanning the front page, my eyes rested on an article mentioning Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian political party (svoboda, means, I remembered, “freedom”). I prepared an egg-white omelette and toasted two slices of multigrain bread. After a few sips of coffee, fragments of the night’s dream came to mind…

Marijuana: The High and the Low

Medical marijuana patient Kevin Brown at the Apothecarium, a medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco, December 2011
Cannabis is one of the oldest psychotropic drugs in continuous use. Archaeologists have discovered it in digs in Asia that date to the Neolithic period, around 4000 BCE. Marijuana appears useful in treating anorexia, nausea and vomiting, glaucoma, irritable bowel disease, muscle spasticity, multiple sclerosis, symptoms of amyotropic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome. Numerous studies show that it also lengthens a person’s reaction time and impairs his or her attention, concentration, short-term memory, and assessment of risks.

Unlike Others

Rachel Adams and her son Henry, New York City, 2009
Homer and Herodotus, Sophocles and Plato, Aristotle and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. All names engraved in the edifice of Columbia’s Butler Library. They may be “dead white men,” but to undergraduates in the 1960s, they seemed very much alive in the classes where we engaged their texts and debated their …

What Is Autism?

Emily L. Williams: Popularity, mixed media collage, 2008; from the book Drawing Autism, a collection of work by more than fifty artists with autism. Edited by Jill Mullin and with an introduction by Temple Grandin, it will be published in a new edition by Akashic Books in 2014.
I never learned to type. The best I can do is hunt and peck with two fingers while looking at the keyboard. Instead of touch-typing, I was taught how to work with metal: shape flashings, solder wires, drill into tin. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. L., divided the class into those able to undertake a so-called “academic curriculum” and ultimately attend college, and those like me, only fit for vocational training, destined to work in factories or repair shops. Mrs. L. made clear to us what marked a promising student: neat penmanship, proper posture, and sharp attention to her lessons. It did not take her long to conclude that I lacked all of these indicators.

The ‘Happy’ and the ‘Hopeless’

Students at the music teacher Mimi Scheiblauer’s school for deaf-mute children, Zurich, 1944
In 1981, I completed my fellowship training in blood diseases and cancer, and took a junior faculty position at the University of California, Los Angeles. During that first year at UCLA, a young man was hospitalized with a rare form of pneumonia caused by Pneumocystis carinii. He died despite the …

In a Medical Sanctuary

Doctors and interns in a pediatrics ward, Le Havre, France, 1975
A doctor’s education classically begins with an introduction not to the living but to the dead. And so it was for me some forty years ago. After the opening lecture on human anatomy in a large amphitheater, our class moved to a cold subterranean room. There, scores of cadavers covered …

The Lost Patient

Damon Weber, the subject of Immortal Bird, by his father, Doron Weber
As the second year of medical school drew to a close, our education moved from lectures in the classroom to rounds at the bedside. We assumed the role of apprentices, expected to model ourselves not only on the clinical acumen of the senior physicians, but also on how they communicated …

The Body and Human Progress

Lake Sevan, Armenia, Soviet Union, 1972; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
According to family lore, my father’s mother, Rebecca Kapalovich, arrived at Ellis Island on the day that President William McKinley was shot, September 6, 1901. Sixteen years old, standing less than five feet tall, slim in build, she had left an impoverished village in Russia to seek a better life. Cousins took her into their tenement flat and she soon began sewing clothes in a dark, airless sweatshop on Rivington Street. She and other immigrants on the Lower East Side were exposed to tuberculosis, diphtheria, and pertussis. Subsistence wages made a healthy diet impossible, and disorders like rickets that stunted growth were not uncommon.

Health Care: Who Knows ‘Best’?

One of the principal aims of the current health care legislation is to improve the quality of care. According to the President and his advisers, this should be done through science. The administration’s stimulus package already devoted more than a billion dollars to “comparative effectiveness research,” meaning, in the President’s …

Dilemmas for Doctors

Raye Birk and Michael Stuhlbarg in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film A Serious Man, 2009
In the November 5 issue of The New York Review, Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote about his experiences observing interns and residents at Massachusetts General Hospital and the way that new technologies and practices have affected the work of young doctors. He recently talked about the subject with Andrew Martin of …

Diagnosis: What Doctors Are Missing

Thomas Eakins: The Agnew Clinic, 1889
Several months ago, I led a clinical conference for interns and residents at the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was thirty-three years since I had trained there, and beyond discussing the topic of the gathering, I was keen to learn from these young doctors how they viewed recent changes in the …