Stanford oncologist Charlotte Jacobs, MD, loved reading biographies as a child. But it wasn’t until years later, while on sabbatical at Stanford, that she decided to take a creative writing course and begin cultivating a second career as a biographer.
Her first biography, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, was published in 2010 and chronicled the life and work of one of the foremost physician-scientists in the history of cancer medicine. Her latest book, Jonas Salk: A LIFE, tells the remarkable story of the man who conquered polio. The New York Times called Jacobs latest biography, “science writing at its best.”
In a recently published Q&A on the Department of Medicine website, Jacobs discusses how she balances her roles as mother, physician and author. “I could find snippets during every day to write. Even today I find that to be the case,” she says.
On the topic of being able to meld her doctor life with her writer life, Jacobs says:
I don’t meld the two at all. When I’m writing or doing research on one of my books, I’m totally focused on that. And when I’m with my patients, I’m totally focused on them. One thing I learned from Henry Kaplan, who had a whirlwind of activity surrounding him, was that when he was in the exam room, the patient was his only concern.
“I do think my background in science helped me be a better writer, though. I chose subjects who were in the field of science or medicine because that is what I know. One of the hardest tasks was interpreting my subjects’ work to the general public. I used to think if my next-door neighbor, who was a smart housewife, couldn’t understand and enjoy the books, I had failed.
“Knowing academic medicine also helped. Jonas Salk ran into major political hurdles, and he was not treated kindly—some of which was his own doing. Having spent my entire career in academic medicine, I could understand the world in which he worked.
Previously: Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life, Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in “narrative medicine”, Literature and medicine at life’s end, Poetry’s connection to medicine and the body and More than medicine: Stanford medical students embrace their artistic passions through unique program