As Suzanne Koven writes in her introduction, Letters to a Young Female Physician takes its title from an 1855 collection called Letters to a Young Physician Just Entering Upon Practice. Similar collections have been published by other — notably — male authors through the years. But when Koven started her medical degree three decades ago, such letters were silent on navigating the particulars of her career: being a mother, a wife, and a woman as well as a doctor. So, Koven penned a letter herself, writing down all that she wished she had known when she started. That missive was the genesis of this book, a collection of two-dozen essays, both autobiographical and philosophical, as well as flat-out funny.
While Koven’s father was a physician, it wasn’t obvious that she would follow in his footsteps, as there were few women role models at the time. She majored in English in college, but eventually enrolled in medical school and went into a family practice at Massachusetts General Hospital and a member of the faculty at Harvard University Medical School in Boston. Over time, Koven circled back to her love of the written word, completing a master’s degree in literature and creative writing at Harvard’s Extension School. This morphed into her leadership in a program bringing humanities into workplaces, in which she taught classes on literature and medicine for physicians. She is currently the inaugural writer-in-residence at Massachusetts General.
The essays in this book mix together Koven’s experiences from childhood through medical school, in the hospital and at home. They describe the often unclear path a doctor must tread when it is her own child or her own parent who needs medical care. Koven’s writing is honest, engaging, and frank. She does not shy away from her own shortcomings — be they with her own self-perception, her strained relationship with her father, her struggle with weight, or her refuge in humor — but rather contextualizes them in light of all that she’s experienced through her years as a doctor. Koven gleans lessons from patients that are just as important as those learned in a classroom, the kind of lessons that apply well beyond the exam room or the hospital, and extend much more generally to anyone who cares deeply for others. This lovely collection of essays has just one flaw: the title suggests that the audience is young, female physicians. But the reality is that this book is for anyone who strives for a life filled with hope and connection.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.