I contemplate the body, dead and diseased as well as alive and healthy. Wrinkles on a beloved’s face, the body after death, are mortal lessons. He who shrinks from their contemplation is like a dandy sniffing a vinegar-soaked hanky lest he catch the rank whiff of the poor.
When surgeon Richard Selzer started writing nine years ago as the result of a “midlife crisis,” he found that it satisfied a “profound need.” He then set out to master his new craft, “like a surgeon learns his instruments.” Despite the demands of a private practice and teaching duties at the Yale Medical School, he took his pen (“a more primitive tool” than a typewriter) and after hours produced a steady flow of magazine articles, two books—and some scalpel-sharp opinions about a surgeon’s job.
Perhaps the most startling appears in Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, published this year by Simon and Schuster. In it the 49-year-old author seeks to shatter the myth of medical omnipotence. “If people understood that doctors weren’t divine,” he says, “perhaps the odor of malpractice might diminish.”
That kind of plain speaking has not played well with some colleagues. “Many criticize me as an irresponsible journalist,” he admits, “but I am neither.” He has received dozens of messages from fellow doctors who thank him for “saying exactly what they’d always wanted to say.” His short essays, rendered in a highly theatrical style (“I have a penchant for the macabre”), often recount medical folklore: in one essay, Selzer reports that baldness is often considered a sign of potency, and that castration seems the only preventive to baldness. Selzer’s wry conclusion: “Bald is beautiful!”
Still, Selzer is troubled by some of the harsher criticism of Mortal Lessons and is aware that an especially vivid description of abortion offended some readers. “I feel like telling them I meant no harm,” he says, but then adds quickly, “I wouldn’t stop writing to please anyone.”
Born in Troy, N.Y., one of two sons of a physician, Richard was 13 when his father died suddenly of a heart attack. “My single-mindedness about becoming a doctor myself stems from hoping to find him through his work,” Selzer says now. He attended Albany Medical College, where his first day in anatomy lab convinced him to go into surgery. An internship at Yale was followed by Army duty, and in 1957 he returned to New Haven, where he now teaches and operates five days a week at Yale-New Haven Medical Center.
Describing his life as “quite ordinary,” Selzer lives just five minutes from Yale in a two-story, white clapboard house with his wife of 22 years, Janet, a graduate of Smith College, and their three children, Jonathan, 19 (a Wesleyan sophomore), Larry, 17, and Gretchen, 14. He relaxes by swimming, running and bird-watching (“There’s an owl outside my bedroom I’m in love with”).
“I never intended to become a writer,” he insists, but by 1975 he had won the prestigious National Magazine Award for his unusual essays. Of his sometimes purple prose, he says, “I love to grab a big armful of language and revel in it.”
This summer he spent two weeks at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga, N.Y. where he worked on a fictionalized account of a medic’s adventures on a steamboat during the Civil War. Despite his success as a writer, Selzer says he has never considered giving up his medical practice. “The grist for my mill is the human body and the art of healing,” he says. “If I quit surgery, I’d be afraid I’d dry up.”