Making a Difference: Mixing Medicine and Literature-Robert Coles

By Webber, Rebecca | Humanities, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference: Mixing Medicine and Literature-Robert Coles


Webber, Rebecca, Humanities


Poet William Carlos Williams had a profound effect on the career of Robert Coles. "His vision about the role of the writer as someone who seeks to understand the world and to become involved in the world in his or her thinking or living, informed my notion of what the humanities are," says Coles. The two met and became lifelong friends when Coles was studying literature at Harvard. Williams, who was a doctor as well as a poet, was the subject of Coles's thesis. Williams inspired Coles to pursue a medical degree and to practice medicine among poor and vulnerable populations.

Coles has worked as a medical doctor, a child psychiatrist, a Harvard professor, and a magazine editor. Within each of these pursuits, he has used literature to think, learn, and teach about how humans should live.

He has won two Pulitzers, a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2000, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Coles began in pediatrics, but eventually turned to child psychiatry. "I became interested not only in children's bodily difficulties but in their response to them," he says. He shares his exploration of children's lives and sensibilities in many widely acclaimed books, including the five-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series.

Coles has written numerous articles, reviews and essays, and more than fifty books. He has contributed to magazines such as the New Yorker, the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly, which published his first piece in 1960, entitled "A Young Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession."

Coles spent two years as a military doctor, running a hospital at an air force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. His work in the South exposed him to children and families caught in the struggle for desegregation. He wrote about his subjects, "for someone like myself," he says, "trying to understand the world through books. …

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