Dr. Chekhov’s Side Business

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“My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end.” – Narrator in the short story “A Dreary Story: From the Notebook of an Old Man,” written by Anton Chekhov in 1889

Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other.” -Anton Chekhov, in an 1888 letter to his publisher

I’ve known about Russian writer Anton Chekhov for years—his short stories are legendary and moving—but I only recently found out about physician Chekhov. Yes, in fact, Anton Chekhov was a practicing physician throughout his life. He earned his medical degree from the University of Moscow and began practicing as a physician in 1884, often treating the poor without fee.  He started writing on the side to make a bit of extra money—he needed to support his entire family at a young age—not because he knew he was a budding literary genius. One of his initial pseudonyms was “Man Without a Spleen.” Once Chekhov’s writing gained acclaim and followers, he kept doing it (and kept reeling in the cash), and became a pioneer of the short story. But he never stopped practicing medicine, up until his death at age 44 from tuberculosis. Even when he knew he had contracted tuberculosis, when he was in his last days, he continued to see patients. When he finally passed, his wife Olga at his bedside, he asked for champagne before his last breath.

When we laud Chekhov today, most of us don’t remember that he was a physician. But it makes sense that a writer so celebrated for understanding and probing the depths of human suffering was so close to it in his daily work. The fortunes of people in Chekhov’s pages were as important as the fortunes of people in real life. Treating the ill allowed the writer to see commonalities in peasants and royalty, and write stories that questioned common assumptions about both.

When I think about Chekhov practicing as a “doctor who creates,” I can see how his medicine and writing worked in tandem. Especially after his brother died of tuberculosis, Chekhov thought long and hard about the purpose of life and whether he was living it with a sense of purpose. He devoted energy at his country home to organize relief for cholera and famine victims; he traveled to Sakhalin Island in Siberia to investigate and write about its prison conditions; and he wrote “A Dreary Story,” about a traditionally successful man, a professor of science, who narrates the end days of his life with the feeling that he has lived without purpose. The man, nearing death, says “As I yield up my last breath I shall still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the life of man; that it always has been and will be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man conquer himself and nature.” When I read this story in full, it seems to me that Chekhov thinks the appreciation for the splendor of science must be balanced by an appreciation for things outside the realm of just studying science—whether friendship, religion, or service.

What we can take from Chekhov’s story—or at least what I take from it—is a confirmation that two talents, two personalities, two interests that exist in one person need not be in conflict. A physician can also be an artist, and use each career to make the other profession stronger.