The Doctor Stories, William Carlos Williams 1984
This is a fine volume of short stories, poems, a selection from WCM’s autobiography, a brief recollection by WCM’s son, and a terrific introduction by Robert Coles. Coles is a psychiatrist at Harvard who is a distinguished author and who met WCM when Coles was an undergraduate and had written a paper about WCM’s most famous poem, ‘Paterson’. The meeting led to Coles deciding on medicine as a career and began a lifelong relationship between the young doctor/writer and the older doctor/poet.
Williams is a rather remarkable figure, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a dedicated pediatrician working long hours in poor New Jersey neighborhoods before sitting down to write his poetry late at night. The son of a Puerto Rican woman and an English father, he was raised in Rutherford, NJ where he practiced his profession for 40 years. A follower of Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, his poetry was not properly appreciated during his lifetime though now most people would recognize The Red Wagon and This is Just to Say, the latter about his eating the plums in the icebox which were being saved for breakfast.
These stories are not polished prose but the raw experiences and emotions of a doctor dealing with long hours, little or no pay, and challenging families, but what comes through is how Williams treasured these opportunities to enter people’s homes and hear their conversation, experience their lives, and share in their tragedies and triumphs. Reading them reminded me of my own young years when I was privileged to accompany my neighbor and pediatrician, Sam Bolonik, on his house calls. What a privilege that was and reading Williams’ stories reminded me of why I went into pediatrics so many years ago.
The profession has changed. HIPPA would prevent these experiences now and nobody makes house calls anyway, but I’d highly recommend Williams book for any young person who is thinking about medicine as well as for anyone in the profession. Coles taught a course at Harvard Medical School which I audited many years ago as a junior faculty member. The course focused on physicians who were writers and though I don’t recall, WCM being in the curriculum, that may be where I first learned of him.
I chose the specific edition of the book that I read for the cover photo. It’s not the best photo of a book, but I love that the cover is an actual photo of WCM as a young resident at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in NY in 1909. The back cover of the book features a photo of WCM in 1919 with his two sons, both of whom went on to become doctors.