A literary prescription

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 2 April 2012

Dr Peter Goldsworthy combines careers in medicine and writing

There’s a great tradition of doctors who also write, says Dr Peter Goldsworthy, who divides his time equally between general practice and writing.

“[Anton] Chekhov, one of the greatest short story writers of all time, was also a doctor”, says Dr Goldsworthy.

“And Somerset Maugham, who never practised, but graduated from medicine, said he thought a medical degree was the best training a writer could have.”

Dr Goldsworthy began writing science fiction stories when he was 11, and although he was an avid reader, says he wasn’t very good at English for most of his school years.

Instead, he liked science, and was good at it, so he decided to study medicine at the University of Adelaide.

He enjoyed his medical studies, and says his poem Morbid song (below), about a dissecting room experience, expresses “the fascination of it all and the weirdness of it all”.

While at medical school he also pursued his interest in writing. He sat in on English lectures, had poems published and wrote reviews for the university newspaper.

After graduation in 1974, he worked for about 5 years in alcohol and drug rehabilitation at the then Hillcrest Hospital, and began writing and publishing short stories.

He says the cross-section of patients he met through the alcohol clinic was invaluable for his writing.

“The stories that people would tell you — it was fascinating work for a writer”, he says.

Dr Goldsworthy has achieved considerable success as a writer, receiving numerous awards including a Helpmann Award and Commonwealth Poetry Prize. His most recent short story collection, Gravel, was shortlisted for the 2011 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Several of his novels have been translated into various languages, or turned into films.

He says that success came “creeping, creeping” rather than through a big break moment. For instance, by the time his first novel Maestro was published in 1989, he had already published several books of poems and short stories.

Despite these achievements, he continues to practise at the same small Adelaide general practice he has worked in since 1980, and doesn’t plan to switch to full-time writing any time soon.

“I did it for 2 years, a long time ago, when I wrote probably my most medical novel, Honk if you are Jesus. But I actually found I wrote less when I had the time on my hands. I didn’t have the deadline of having to go to work in the afternoon. It was like living forever — why do anything if you can put it off till tomorrow?”

Dr Goldsworthy says working as a GP also provides endless inspiration for his writing and a counterbalance to the solitude of writing.

“You can’t write a novel unless you have constant human contact — talking to people, listening to what they say, and studying their character — medicine’s perfect for that.”

He says his patients aren’t shy about providing feedback on his writing, and acknowledges that they do sometimes crop up in his stories.

“Sometimes they are in my books, but you move them sideways. You try to find an essence in a character, or an emotional objective or character flaw.”

He also continues to draw satisfaction from the medical work itself, particularly from the relationships he has built with patients over 20 or 30 years.

“We’re friends now, and I know their kids, and their kids’ kids now, for some of them. I like that. I like that continuity.”

More about Dr Peter Goldsworthy, including links to his e-books and free downloadable essays and short stories, is available at:


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