Union Notables

Richard Selzer    class of 1948

Courtesy of Yale University

“Blood and ink, in my hands, have a certain similarity,” Richard Selzer ’48 once wrote. “When you hold a scalpel, blood is shed; when you hold a pen, ink is spilled. Something is let in each of these acts.” Selzer, whose writing describes the responsibilities, rewards and challenges of being a surgeon, is a pivotal figure in medical humanities. More widely, he has helped define our culture’s evolving sense of medicine and healthcare.

From an early age, Selzer cultivated interests in both medicine and literature. Born to Russian immigrants in 1928 in Troy, N.Y., Selzer was the son of a family physician who brought him on rounds and instilled in him a love of the human body and what Selzer later called “the glorious privilege of healing it.” At the same time, his mother – an artist, singer and actress – fueled his passion for literature by immersing him in Russian fairy tales, Greek mythology and Aesop’s Fables. When Julius Selzer died suddenly of a heart attack, the 13-year-old vowed to fulfill his father’s dream and pursue a career in medicine. His mother’s influence remained, however, and his passion for literature would blossom decades later.

At Union, Selzer majored in biology but took a steady dose of courses in French, psychology, English literature and composition, and European history. “This diverse undergraduate experience, merging the two seemingly disparate fields of science and the humanities, was fundamental to his hybrid artistry,” wrote Mahala Yates Stripling, author of Imagine a Man: the Surgeon Storyteller, a literary biography of Selzer. Leonard Clark and Allan Scott who were biology professors known for their wide-ranging research interests inspired Selzer while he was at Union. He was a member of Phi Sigma Delta fraternity and wrote for the student newspaper, Concordiensis. He recalled his time at Union as “an intimate, personal, thorough education at a small, congenial college.”

After Union, he went on to Albany Medical College, earning his M.D. degree in 1953. He served a surgical residency at Yale University, interrupted by two years of service as an Army medic during the Korean War. In 1960, he began a private surgical practice at Yale-New Haven Hospital. At 40, he began to write by instituting a dedicated routine of going to bed early and getting up in the middle of the night to write. Selzer prefers to write in longhand, as if holding a scalpel.

A mystery magazine published his first stories. His first book, Rituals of Surgery, a collection of short stories, was published in 1973 followed by Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (1976), Confessions of a Knife (1979), and Letters to a Young Doctor (1982). These works sparked the literature-and-medicine movement that has become important to a new doctor patient-centered medicine, according to Stripling. Today, his work – rich in themes of empathy in the doctor-patient relationship – is integral to the canon of literature used to train humanistic doctors. Selzer, who holds an honorary doctor of science degree from Union, retired from medicine in 1985 to write full-time.

Books by Richard Selzer ’48:

Rituals of Surgery (1973); Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (1976); Confessions of a Knife (1979); Letters to a Young Doctor (1982); Taking the World in for Repairs (1986); Imagine a Woman (1990); Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age (1992; autobiography); Raising the Dead: A Doctor’s Encounter with His Own Mortality (1993); What One Man Said to Another: Talks with Richard Selzer (1994; with Peter Josyph); The Doctor Stories (1998); The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays (2001); The Whistler's Room: Stories and Essays (2004); Knife Song Korea: A novel (2009); Letters to a Best Friend (2009; with Peter Josyph); and Diary (2010)