15 Books That Have Shaped My Medical School Journey

Aug 18, 2020

Written by Sarah Butler

Sarah is a 5th year medical student at Monash University

As a medical student, the constant pressure to absorb information can get tiring, as we fill our hours reading pages of textbooks, guidelines and lecture slides. Consequently, many medical students find it difficult to prioritise reading for leisure and limit their exposure to the broader opinions and experiences of the medical field.

When we read, we train our ability to focus, develop our communication skills and expose ourselves to important ideas and knowledge that the medical curriculum lacks. More importantly, it can be a wonderful method to take a break, relax, and enjoy experiencing the life of another for a short while.

Here are 15 books which have made the biggest impression on my medical school journeys thus far. Enjoy and happy reading!

1. Being Mortal

By Atul Gawande


“What does it mean to be good at taking care of people whose problems we cannot fix?”

Delving into the complexities of end-of-life care, Gawande is a careful and sensitive analyst, discussing the intricacies of a topic that we too often shy away from. He explores the ethical conundrum around prolonging life in those who are terminally ill, and the lasting impact that our palliative care choices have on both the patient and their families. Gawande asks many hard-hitting questions, prompting readers to reflect long and hard about the role of a doctor in palliative care and whether our commitment to extending life in actuality sometimes extends suffering. Atul Gawande is an incredibly intelligent writer, and I would highly recommend his other work including Better, Complications or The Checklist Manifesto.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot


“She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?”


Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer whose contribution to scientific discovery is notably overlooked. Despite having died over 60 years ago, Henrietta's cells, known as "HeLa cells" which were taken without her knowledge, are still used today across the world. These were the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture and have been crucial in scientific developments from IVF to the polio vaccine, understanding cancer and the effect of atomic bombs. Skloot is a wonderful journalist who delves into a fascinating true history and exposes the dark human consequences that scientific discovery can have. A must-read for anyone with an interest in medical research.

3. When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi


“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”

This profoundly moving memoir details the experiences of a 36 year old neurosurgeon, who, at the cusp of completing his training, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. But please don't let this grim topic put you off. Kalanithi has a background in literature, and his writing is simply beautiful, with many philosophical discussions about what makes a life worth living, and how we shape human identity. You will be left thinking about the concepts in this book, long after you complete it, but be warned, you will need tissues

4. Going Under

By Sonia Henry



"The most important quality for a Doctor to possess is kindness. Without kindness I think we’re all lost in this maze of impossible perfection and self punishment"

For those after a fictional read, 'Going Under' is a sensational Australian choice. Henry was the anonymous author of the viral article ‘There is something rotten inside the medical professionwhich in 2016, turned a spotlight to the unacceptable rates of poor mental health and suicide among doctors. In this book, she delves into the life of an intern trying to survive her first year of training in Sydney and seamlessly blends dark humour with frank honesty. Both engrossing and shocking, this book is sure to keep you turning pages until the end. They say nothing is truer than fiction, and unfortunately this novel reminds us of the serious flaws in our medical system and the lengths we still need to go to create a safe medical workplace.

5. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

By Siddhartha Mukherjee



“The art of medicine is long, Hippocrates tells us, "and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.”

From the perspective of a physician and researcher, Siddartha Mukerhjee has created a fascinating tale, part literary thriller, part historical non-fiction. Whilst certainly a lengthy book, the writing is lyrical and accessible, making it a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the history of cancer and our efforts to treat it over more than five thousand years. Through centuries of setbacks, victories and interesting cases, this is a history book guaranteed to keep you entertained.

6. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

By Tracy Kidder


"..if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you're saying that their lives matter less than some others', and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that's wrong with the world.”

Many of us yearn to "make a difference" and yet are overwhelmed by where to start, and this book will certainly put our inertia somewhat to shame. This engaging biography delves into the inspirational world of Paul Farmer who at just 23 began dedicating his life to treating the poor. From Haiti to Peru and to prisoners in Russia, you will be inspired by Farmer's steadfast tenacity, never wavering in his dedication to those who need him. Kidder does a wonderful job painting a portrait of Farmer’s remarkable life as she follows his journey across the globe, a great read for those with an interest in global health.

7. I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity

By Izzeldin Abuelaish

“Tragedy cannot be the end of our lives. We cannot allow it to control and defeat us.”

This incredibly compelling memoir will take you deep into the inspiring life of Dr Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who sheds light on the terrifying reality of the Gaza strip. His career and humanitarian dedication is truly remarkable, and his struggle against a lifetime of oppression and prejudice is penned into a beautiful piece of writing. Even following the murder of his family in a house shelling in 2009, Dr Abuelaish refuses to allow hatred to poison his mind and instead continues his quest peace and understanding, not revenge.

8. Thinking Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman


“If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.”

Perhaps this one may seem like it doesn’t belong here, but hear me out. This fascinating book is a challenging read, but it is definitely one of the best in its genre. Kahneman engages his readers in lively conversation about how we think, and the mental 'glitches' that can sometimes lead us astray. Doctors on a daily basis need to exercise both fast, instinctive judgements in emergency situations and slow, calculated decisions based on pertinent symptoms, clinical history and examination. This book teaches us how these systems interplay and is a great thought-provoking read to compliment your clinical studies.

9. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales

By Oliver Sacks


“The pleasure we obtain from music comes from counting, but counting unconsciously. Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic.”

This is a fascinating collection of case histories by the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks. Yet the beauty of this text is that it is far from an informative work on the bizarre neurological disorders that Sacks' patients present with; but instead a powerful meditation on the extraordinary capabilities of the human mind and the beauty of imperfection. Sacks will have you truly perplexed at the patients he encounters, which range from being truly unbelievable to  utterly devastating. A short medical read for the budding neurologist.

10. This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

By Adam Kay

"Bleeped awake at 3AM from my first half hour shut-eye in three shifts to prescribe a sleeping pill to a patient whose sleep is evidently much more important than mine. My powers are greater than I realised; I arrive on the ward to find the patient is asleep.”

In a series of humorously cynical journal entries, Kay takes us on a journey through his internship and into his budding career as a consultant obstetrician in the UK. As he encounters numerous patients and their amusing presentations, we can’t help but laugh at the familiarity of his experiences. Whilst the specifics pertain to the NHS, Kay's stories of navigating the medical system make for a light-hearted, page-turning read that will be sure to generate a laugh and will be relevant for medical students at any stage of their degree.

11. Do Not Harm: Stories of Life, Dealth and Brain Surgery

By Henry Marsh


“Hope is beyond price and the pharmaceutical companies, which are run by businessmen not altruists, price their products accordingly.”

Despite its title, this is not a book simply about neurosurgery. Whilst Marsh writes with brilliant prose about the wonder of the human brain, he equally explores the failure of technology and work culture which impedes a patient's access to adequate healthcare. Frank but charming, Marsh's story brings over 30 years of experience into a delightful read, perfect for any surgical-wannabe or anyone simply after an enjoyable memoir. A fascinating blend of detailed surgical procedure with Marsh’s commentary that is honest and humble and a pleasure to read.

12. Bad Science

By Ben Goldacre 


“You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”


At a time when science is used to prove everything and nothing, Goldacre delves into some of the most critical issues in the scientific community. From the MMR-Autism scandal, to ‘Big Pharma,’ to the influence of the media in the dissemination of misinformation; Bad Science leaves no stone unturned. Whilst fascinating and often humorous, the importance of these serious topics cannot be overstated. Even for the well-versed medical student, there is plenty to learn from Goldacre's vast knowledge, which makes for an incredibly engaging read.

13. Still Alice

By Lisa Genova


"What if I see you, and I don't know that you're my daughter, and I don't know that you love me?"

This powerful novel explores the devastating impact of Alzheimer's disease and is both compelling and devastating, penned by a woman with an impressive background in neuroscience. As we follow the fiercely independent Alice and her efforts to delay the inevitable progression of her early-onset disease, it's hard not to recognise the futility of her notes and reminders. As Alice's relationship with her family and her world swiftly changes, we have an opportunity to savour an incredibly heartfelt book and be reminded of the precious value of good health.

14. The House of God

By Samuel Shem


"At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse."


This list would not be complete without Shem's 1970's classic, The House of God. Darkly witty, Shem explores the grim parts of medicine that have often been shied away from. To this day you'll hear references of the 'Laws' such as "Gomers don't die" (that is, the elderly or "Get Out of My Emergency Room.") that are oft-quoted among the medical community. Read it with a heavy grain of salt, but this is arguably a rite-of-passage for all medical graduates.

15. The People in the Trees

By Hanya Yanigahara


“All ethics and morals are culturally relative. And Esme's reaction taught me that while cultural relativism is an easy concept to process intellectually, it is not, for many, an easy one to remember.”


A novel that is equally moving as unsettling, Yanigahara's first published work is truly mesmerising. As we follow a scientist's discovery of a life-prolonging meat eaten by a lost Micronesian tribe, we are forced to question our moral stance on scientific discovery, neo-colonisation and exploitation. Whilst not directly related to medicine, the themes and ethical dilemmas that this novel explores are inherently important to anyone science-minded. As you delve into the life of Norton Perina, you'll find yourself questioning whether this work is fictional at all, a stark and terrifying reality.


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