The best books about a life in science or medicine

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up, I experienced “otherness.” My family was hard up amidst affluence. Typecast as Jewish, where that was a rarity, we were met with suspicion and unease. Being a woman held my mother back from her preferred profession. Racism was rampant; my growing appreciation of it and efforts to intervene added to “otherness.”  My childhood was shadowed by illness, including my mother’s cancer. These influences drew me to medicine and science. Both are a way to overcome “otherness” and to protect one’s family, even as my sense of family expanded. Medicine forges extraordinary bonds between doctor and patient. Science brings people together from diverse backgrounds to share goals. These connections make meaningful stories. 


I wrote...

An Arrow's ARC: Journey of a Physician-Scientist

By Carl F. Nathan,

Book cover of An Arrow's ARC: Journey of a Physician-Scientist

What is my book about?

People may think that being a physician, a scientist, or both is an exercise in reason. That’s partly true, but for all of us, who we are and how we get there have a profound effect on what we do. It goes the other way, too; what we encounter in the pursuit of our work shapes who we turn out to be.

My effort to understand the interdependence of my personal and professional lives helped me understand things that concern all of us. Here, stories of medicine and science in turbulent times point to insights that transcend the teller and the times.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Carl F. Nathan Why did I love this book?

I love how Simard weaves her life story together with the story of what she discovered.

I empathize with her standing up to rejection, even ridicule, to overcome being an “outsider,” both for her discoveries and for being a woman in science. I admire that she is equally attuned to the details of how trees and the fungi beneath them collaborate and communicate as she is to the industrial, societal, and climatological implications.

Through it all, she expresses the message that life is sustained and shaped by a web of interactions within species and among them.

By Suzanne Simard,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Finding the Mother Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • From the world's leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest—a moving, deeply personal journey of discovery

“Finding the Mother Tree reminds us that the world is a web of stories, connecting us to one another. [The book] carries the stories of trees, fungi, soil and bears--and of a human being listening in on the conversation. The interplay of personal narrative, scientific insights and the amazing revelations about the life of the forest make a compelling story.”—Robin Wall…


Book cover of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

Carl F. Nathan Why did I love this book?

Yong is not a scientist himself, but he is an extraordinary writer who steps into the world view of one scientist after another to capture their passion for discovery and their amazement at what they learn and to share that with us, simply and clearly. He does all this with an ear for prose that delights with its ring as well as its content.

One of the messages running through this hard-to-put-down book is how differently and precisely various species adapt to their niche to sense what matters to them most. A key subtext is how much we lose by changing environments faster than species adapt.

By Ed Yong,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked An Immense World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Wonderful, mind-broadening... a journey to alternative realities as extraordinary as any you'll find in science fiction' The Times, Book of the Week

'Magnificent' Guardian

Enter a new dimension - the world as it is truly perceived by other animals.

The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving only a tiny sliver of an immense world. This book welcomes us into previously unfathomable dimensions - the world as it is truly perceived by other animals.

We encounter beetles that are…


Book cover of Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within

Carl F. Nathan Why did I love this book?

What is it like to be a doctor failing to save your patients, then turning to the lab to understand why, then bringing that learning back to improve outcomes, not just for your patients but for patients you will never see who have diseases you will never treat?

Kevin Tracey is a brilliant neurosurgeon and innovative scientist who not only did all that but also went one step further—he wrote a book that answers those questions and reads like a thriller. He takes the concept of “lab bench to bedside” from platitude to paradigm. 

By Kevin J. Tracey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fatal Sequence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Severe sepsis, a critical illness that most often afflicts victims of initially non-fatal illnesses or injuries, is the third-most common killer in the United States. In "Fatal Sequence", neurosurgeon, immunologist, and clinical investigator, Kevin J. Tracey offers a chronicle, both scientific and human, using cases he personally experienced to illustrate the clinical nightmare of organ failure that typifies the disease. In clear, accessible language, Tracey explains how the brain, which normally restrains the immune system and protects the patient, can fail during severe sepsis - allowing the immune system to indiscriminately kill normal cells along with foreign microbes. "Fatal Sequence"…


Book cover of Cutting for Stone

Carl F. Nathan Why did I love this book?

This riveting novel by an infectious disease physician demonstrates how something as seemingly stereotypic as a medical career can be profoundly shaped by circumstance, accident, location, and political events, as well as by family and personality.

The practice of surgery—be it closing a wound or removing a lesion—can be both of those things for the emotions of the person performing it. There is an analogous message for other fields of medicine—practice and practitioner become interrelated at a deeply personal level.

By Abraham Verghese,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Cutting for Stone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

My brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths in the thick air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia. Bound by birth, we were driven apart by bitter betrayal. No surgeon can heal the would that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning...


Book cover of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Carl F. Nathan Why did I love this book?

This collection of essays was perhaps the first and most successful attempt by a physician-scientist to share a love of so many areas of science and medicine with such a wide audience with such sparkling prose. Indeed, he was called a poet.

Thomas published each essay first in the world’s premier medical journal—The New England Journal of Medicine—but the collection went far beyond a medical audience and won a National Book Award.

I loved that Thomas smashed the glass walls that divide one area of science from another and that divide a seemingly esoteric profession from the public. You can practically hear glass tinkling.

By Lewis Thomas,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Lives of a Cell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Elegant, suggestive, and clarifying, Lewis Thomas's profoundly humane vision explores the world around us and examines the complex interdependence of all things.  Extending beyond the usual limitations of biological science and into a vast and wondrous world of hidden relationships, this provocative book explores in personal, poetic essays to topics such as computers, germs, language, music, death, insects, and medicine.  Lewis Thomas writes, "Once you have become permanently startled, as I am, by the realization that we are a social species, you tend to keep an eye out for the pieces of evidence that this is, by and large, good…


You might also like...

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Road from Belhaven

Margot Livesey Author Of The Road from Belhaven

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Reader Secret orphan Professor Scottish Novelist

Margot's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Road from Belhaven is set in 1880s Scotland. Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small girl that she can see the future. But she soon realises that she must keep her gift a secret. While she can sometimes glimpse the future, she can never change it.

Nor can Lizzie change the feelings that come when a young man named Louis, visiting Belhaven for the harvest, begins to court her. Why have the adults around her never told her that the touch of a hand can change everything? When she follows Louis to Glasgow, she begins to learn the limits of his devotion and the complexities of her own affections.

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland

Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small child that she can see into the future. But her gift is selective—she doesn’t, for instance, see that she has an older sister who will come to join the family. As her “pictures” foretell various incidents and accidents, she begins to realize a painful truth: she may glimpse the future, but…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in brothers, trees, and the senses?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about brothers, trees, and the senses.

Brothers Explore 105 books about brothers
Trees Explore 49 books about trees
The Senses Explore 22 books about the senses