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Books, Journals, New Media
February 2, 2000

Walker Percy: The Last Physician: Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorJonathan D.EldredgeMLS, PhD, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available

JAMA. 2000;283(5):674-675. doi:10.1001/jama.283.5.674-JBK0202-2-1

There is more literary allusion than literal accuracy in the title The Last Physician, which harks back to that of Walker Percy's second novel, The Last Gentleman. As several contributors to this ably written collection of essays acknowledge, Walker Percy never treated patients as a licensed practitioner of medicine. But if Percy never truly engaged in medicine, he never disengaged from it either. From The Moviegoer to The Thanatos Syndrome his novels are filled with physician-protagonists, doctor-patient relationships, medical dilemmas, riffs on suffering, sickness, healing, science, mortality, and the dual claims of body and spirit—all subject to a clinician's detached yet beneficent gaze. Medicine—as practiced, as endured, as socially contextualized—was one of Percy's chief preoccupations as novelist (some others were philosophy, Catholicism, sex, and the South). Consider the matter another way, and it's evident that novel-writing was, for Percy, a sort of "talking cure." As a practitioner of fiction he could treat human ailments—including his own—through a therapeutic regime that he found far more deeply satisfying than any offered by modern technological medicine, with its penchant for diminishing people to their somatic complaints and reducing those complaints from existential malaise to biochemical imbalance.