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The Arts and Medicine
December 12, 2017

From Sgt. Pepper to Dreamachines: My Scientific Odyssey With William S. Burroughs

Author Affiliations
  • 1National Hospital, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom
JAMA. 2017;318(22):2164-2166. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.17914

William S. Burroughs was a postmodern novelist, science fiction writer, spoken word performer, and visual artist whose life and work were a continuous interrogation of the pieties of established medicine and polite Western society. I never met him personally, but he was an important mentor to me during my career as a clinical researcher and neurologist (Video).

We were introduced in 1967 on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. He stood in the second row between Marilyn Monroe and the Hindu mystic Mahāvatār Bābāji, a position he earned from his importance to the Beat Generation, his hallucinatory writing, and experiments with tape recordings he conducted with Paul McCartney in the Beatles’ studio in Montagu Square. Two years later at a time of disillusionment with my medical education I read Naked Lunch, his series of fantastic nonlinear vignettes described by a Boston judge as a “revolting miasma of unrelieved perversion and disease.” The novel’s horrific hanging scenes with immodest orgasms and Burroughs’ clinical descriptions of the inferno of junky existence were hard to stomach but the persona of Dr Benway, a disembodied physician whose role was to brainwash, control, and terrorize was so outrageous it made me laugh. The antithesis of the good doctor, Benway was an amalgam of some of the “croakers” Burroughs had consulted to obtain his next junk fix and to salve his mental anguish through psychoanalysis. Benway reminded me very much of a frightening, godlike thoracic surgeon who strode the wards of my own teaching hospital.