Richard Selzer

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 27 July 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4182
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Surgeon who explored medicine through his writings about doctors, patients, illness, death, and life

Terry Dagradi

In the late 1960s, when he was 40 years old, Richard Selzer decided to—as he put it years later—teach himself “the craft of writing.” The passion was there. As was the energy. But finding quality time to write would be a problem. Selzer was married with children. He was a practising surgeon in New Haven, Connecticut, where he also taught at Yale University.

He solved the time problem by going to bed each evening between 7.30 and 8 o’clock.

“At 1 am,” he later explained. “I would get up, make some tea, and, with the rest of the world sound asleep and all the light in the universe directed on a blank sheet of paper, I wrote. I wrote dozens of horror stories in the dead of night, just as an exercise.”1

After a few hours of writing, he would return to bed for a bit more sleep before rising at 6 am to prepare for his day job as a surgeon. To preserve energy and time for writing, Selzer gave up most other outside activities. No dinner parties. No trips to the cinema. His life focused on three things: medicine, family, and writing.

“My family did have to accept the fact that I was launched on a different path and wasn't going to lead my previous life,” he said. “For me, the decision to write was not a frivolous thing. It was a passion from the beginning, and I knew I had to do …

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