On Chekhov: The Marriage of Medicine and Literature

July 3, 2014

By Damiana Andonova

Anton Chekhov, Russian physician-playwright from Tagranog, must have written about more than a hundred physician characters in his literary career. They’ve appeared in plays from Platonov to The Three Sisters and many short stories. Each character is unique, variable in personality, in medical attitude, and method. What caricatures: the pompous speaker, the narcissist, the genius, the devout healer, the scatter-brained, boorish feldsher!

Students of literature are regularly reminded of Chekhov’s gun; his contributions to the literary world are many. By 1886, he had already found fame in St. Petersburg and beyond. But, what of him as a physician?

He practiced medicine during most of his literary career but officially retired from the medical profession in 1889. Despite this, he continued to provide free care in Melikhovo and often dabbled in public health initiatives. But what is perhaps most attractive about his medical career is how he bridged medicine and literature. He is quoted saying,

“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress.”

His fascination with medicine, he unreservedly explored in his literature. To say that he created over a hundred fictitious physicians is perhaps only a small testament to his interest in unpacking the medical profession through literary means. He also used his medical competency to richly write about tuberculosis in “Late Blooming Flowers”, typhus in “Typhus”, and many other evocative scenes of medically urgent occasions. His dark descriptions, often besotted with reflection over medical attitudes explains why he wrote such aphorisms:

“People who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings, for instance—judges, police officers, doctors—in course of time, grow so callous, that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients, in this respect they are not different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in the backyard, and does not notice the blood”
–Anton Chekhov in Ward No. # 6.

His storytelling, fabled to have been inherited from his storytelling mother, Yevgeniya, is powerful, evocative, and thought-provoking to say the least. His works merit a spot on a physician’s reading list, even if he did write of medicine practiced centuries ago.

Chekhov, A. P. (2002). Ward No. 6 and other stories, 1892-1895. London ; New York: Penguin.
Coulehan, J. (2003). Chekhov’s doctors: a collection of Chekhov’s medical tales. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.
Teuber, A. (n.d.). Anton Chekhov Biography. Retrieved June 24, 2014, from http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/chekhovbio.html#Biography%20Part%20I

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