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Science, Modern Medicine, and Lloyd C. Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

One thing clearly stands out about Douglas’s years at the University of Michigan: by the time he left in 1921, he was well-versed in the history of science, and in particular the medical sciences. Most of his novels (written in the 1930s) are either about doctors or include scenes with doctors and/or nurses. Douglas was very much at home writing about surgeries, or about physicians diagnosing illnesses. When I first read some of those novels, I wondered if he had been a doctor; no, he was never a doctor, but during his years in Ann Arbor he spent a lot of time with doctors who taught at the medical school, and he did a lot of reading on the subject. Long before he wrote his novels (as early as 1920), his magazine articles were filled with medical and scientific references.

The study of medicine had only recently been transformed in America. As Kenneth Ludmerer explains in his book, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), the entire system of medical education that we now take for granted had only begun in the last couple of decades of the 1800s, in the state colleges. The Johns Hopkins Medical School took the lead as a state-of-the-art training institution, and in the early 20th century there were only a few other groundbreaking medical schools. The University of Michigan was one of them. (See Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).) In other words, Ann Arbor was a great place for Lloyd Douglas to learn about the practice of medicine.

From Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 132: “George Dock… teaching in amphitheater of Catherine Street Hospital. The ‘patient’ is probably a student.” I’ve included it here because it’s from around the time that Douglas was in Ann Arbor observing real surgeries.

In their biography of their father, Douglas’s daughters write:

It is a curious thing how many people thought the novelist, Lloyd Douglas, was a medical doctor… He wrote with authority on operations, and the hospital atmosphere he so often described in his books was taken from years of first-hand observation. He soaked himself in medical lore for the love of it. Often in Ann Arbor surgeons would tell him when they were to perform an unusual operation and invite him to watch.

Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside, 1952), p. 102.

He was there as a minister…

He became so acquainted with the life of the hospital that he seemed part of the organization. Doctors would call him in when they had patients who were depressed and needed spiritual treatment. His method was different with each one. He offered hope to those who wanted hope, but he didn’t believe in being fatuously optimistic with desperately sick people. If they wanted to talk of death, he let them.


…and yet, as a writer, he was taking it all in, “soaking himself” in it, as his daughters said. From 1920 onward, even his religious writing constantly referred to medical analogies or incidents from the history of science. His medical novels were still a decade away. But the germ of the idea was already there. Sometime while he was living in Ann Arbor, he read a newspaper article that he thought would make a good novel someday. He clipped it out and carried it in his wallet.

It reported the death of a doctor who had drowned from a heart attack while his pulmotor, which he always kept in the boathouse for such an emergency, was being used to revive a young man across the lake. The idea never failed to intrigue Daddy. What had the young man thought when he realized his life had been saved at the cost of another’s? Had he been stricken beyond natural remorse by the fact that an experienced, valuable doctor had died and he – young, but of small use to society – lived? Had he been conscious of a duty to replace the older man?

Ibid., pp. 204-205.

That was the setup for the opening chapter of Magnificent Obsession, his first novel, in 1929. Since he read the article during his years in Ann Arbor, it’s likely that he began collecting material even then, at least in an informal way, while he was making his rounds at the hospital.

At any rate, his years in Ann Arbor educated him in both science and medicine, and from 1920 onwards we see him referring often to medical and scientific analogies in his writings.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below: