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When doctors turn to verse, rhyme

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Dr. Rafael Campo describes poetry as a form of primary care that can help heal both patient and physician. Campo, who practices and teaches at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, was recently appointed editor of the Poetry and Medicine section of the medical journal JAMA. He is the latest in a line connecting poetry to medicine. Here is a look at some other notable poets who trained as doctors.

John Keats: The English Romantic poet was apprenticed to his family’s London doctor at age 14 then trained for six months at Guy’s Hospital, where he was quickly promoted to “dresser,” assisting surgeons during operations. He also was a qualified apothecary, the forerunner of the pharmacist. In his poetry, he suggests that scientific knowledge can so demystify the natural world that it lessens its allure. He writes in the poem “Lamia” (1820):

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr: The Cambridge native practiced medicine and later became dean of Harvard Medical School. In 1843, Holmes famously publicized the connection between infection and cleanliness, urging fellow surgeons to wash thoroughly, wear clean clothes, and abstain from deliveries for 48 hours after coming into contact with a case of puerperal, or postpartum, infection. His poem “Old Ironsides” (1830) is credited with helping to save the Navy frigate USS Constitution from being scrapped.

O, better that her shattered hulk

Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

And there should be her grave.

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William Carlos Williams: A New Jersey native and lifelong resident, Williams obtained a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and did advanced study in pediatrics. He maintained a practice out of his home — and delivered an estimated 3,000 babies — even as he became a strong voice in the modernist movement of literature. In Williams’s 1917 poem “January Morning,” a physician makes an appearance.

The young doctor is dancing with happiness

in the sparkling wind, alone

at the prow of the ferry! He notices

the curdy barnacles and broken ice crusts

left at the slip’s base by the low tide

and thinks of summer and green

shell-crusted ledges among

the emerald eel-grass!

Sources: The British Library; The Lancet; The New York Times; and Poets.org

Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene