Notable Doctors Who Left Medicine

Not that you need an example, why not be a trail blazer? But just in case you’d like one, I researched some notable people who left medicine in pursuit of something completely different. I’m not saying every medic is born to become marxist revolutionaries but it’s a way of showing that life is not always predictable. Change can be good.

In chronological order…

William James (USA, 1842-1910)

Brother to author Henry James. W. James was born into a privileged family, and was seen as a disappointment to his father. To ‘make something’ of himself, he was sent to study at Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately, William did not like studying medicine, and took a break in 1865 to travel the Amazon River. There he almost died from small pox and suffered from what he described as “soul-sickness”.

He luckily recovered from his illness, and in 1869 graduated from Harvard Medical School. He never practiced medicine though, and became an influential philosopher in the USA. Known to many as the “Father of American Psychology”, he was the first educator to offer a psychology course in the USA.

If he never took that break from study, and continued as a doctor to please his father, imagine how that would have affected the world of psychology today.

Photo: Notman Studios (photographer) – [1]MS Am 1092 (1185), Series II, 23, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Maria Montessori (Italy, 1870-1952)

Montessori was one of the first women to ever study medicine and she is also well known for creating Montessori Education. Maria started her degree in 1893 in Rome, Italy. She faced a lot of difficulties and was met with hostility due to her gender. She was not allowed to enter the anatomy lab with men, so had to dissect her own cadavers solo.

She graduated in 1896 and became a specialist in paediatric psychiatry. Through her efforts, she founded Montessori Education, that is still in use internationally today. It emphasises independence and exploration, allowing children to have freedom within their learning.

Photo: Doctor Maria Montessori (1870-1952) Italiaans pedagoog en arts

Che Guevara (Argentina, 1928-1967)

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a marxist revolutionary, who studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires in 1948. He broke up his studies with two long journeys through South America, writing journal entries that led to the book and subsequent movie The Motorcycle Diaries.

In 1953 he graduated medical school, but had a bigger dream of a united Hispanic America.

He decided that politics was a better way to make a marked difference, and was involved in the armed political struggle to overthrow capitalism and create a united Latin America. Pretty big stuff.

Michelle Bachelet (Chile, 1951-present)

Bachelet started studying medicine at the University of Chile in 1970. She couldn’t complete her degree initially due to the Pinochet dictatorship, and in 1975 was detained and tortured. She was then exiled to Australia and Germany. After her harrowing experiences, she finally returned to Chile in 1979, and recommenced her studies from the beginning.

After completing her studies and working as a doctor, Bachelet became Chile’s 1st female president in 2006, and was elected president for a second term in 2014. She is currently working with the UN’s High Commission.

A glimpse into the limitless possibilities a medical degree can bring you, and inspiration for a public health specialty.

Official Portrait of Mrs. President of the Republic Michelle Bachelet Jeria, Period 2014-2018.

Mae Jemison (USA, 1956-present)

Jemison studied at Cornell Medical School, starting at the tender age of 16. She graduated in 1981 and worked for the Flying Doctor Service in East Africa. She then went on to work as a medic in the Peace Corps until 1985, when she decided to apply to become an astronaut (naturally).

On September 12 1992, Jemison was the first black woman to travel into space. Jemison proves that you can do anything you put your heart into.

Photo: Mae Carol Jemison (born October 17, 1956) is an American engineer, physician and NASA astronaut. NASA – NASA Image and Video Library (file)

Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations

Mae Jemison

Ken Jeong (USA, 1969-present)

Jeong graduated from the UNC School of Medicine in 1995. He took theatre classes at UCLA in the summer before starting medical school, a glimpse into his interests and future career.

He was involved in multiple comedy clubs, and won the Big Easy Laff-Off in 1995. After lots of success in the stand-up comedy world, he made his film debut in Knocked Up, as Dr Kuni.

From here, he officially closed the door to medicine and now works full-time as a comedian & actor. Jeong shows that you can make an artistic leap and land on your feet!

Photo: Ken Jeong at the 24th Critics Choice Awards in 2019. Danny Moloshok/REUTERS

Adam Kay (UK, 1980)

Adam Kay was an O&G registrar in the NHS who left medicine after a traumatic birth of an undiagnosed placenta praevia tragically led to a baby’s death and mother in critical condition. Kay was unable to continue practicing and blamed himself for the event.

Seven years after resigning, he published his first book This is Going to Hurt, based on his diaries as a doctor. It became an instant Sunday Times bestseller.

Since This is Going to Hurt, Kay has published two more books, is a screenwriter and comedian.

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Bonus Docs

I have also been perusing different doctors who have left medicine, and created businesses. The below women are great inspirations. They all bravely started a new way of life and found what worked for them.

The disillusioned medic by Dr Anjalee Perera (UK)

Anjalee graduated from the University of Bristol in 2013 and began working in London. Perera realised that her heart wasn’t in medicine and decided to make a change. She is currently a writer, marketing consultant and career coach for doctors who want to leave medicine. One of my favourite posts by her is 15 tips: what to do if you want to quit medicine. Well worth a read.

Doctor’s Crossing by Dr Heather Fork (USA)

Heather’s life looked like a success from the outside when she was running her own dermatology practice in Austin, Texas. She tried for years to commit to and find happiness in her work. Nine years in, she sold her practice and moved into a cabin in the woods. Heather decided to follow what she loved, and became a certified Career Coach.

She now runs the amazing business the Doctor’s Crossing, and is helping multitudes of medics change their careers. Her website has a lot of resources on leaving medicine.

Dr Evgenia Galinskaya (UK)

This inspiring doctor has become a career expert and headhunter. She is currently the senior associate of Coulter Partners. Her article on the dangers of googling alternative careers in medicine is very insightful. It definitely changed the way I researched other jobs.

Feature photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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