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The Last Physician

Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine

Carl Elliot, John D. Lantos

Duke University Press

ISBN-13: 978-0822323693

Walker Percy brought to his novels the perspective of both a doctor and a patient. Trained as a doctor at Columbia University, he contracted tuberculosis during his internship as a pathologist at Bellevue Hospital and spent the next three years recovering, primarily in TB sanitoriums. This collection of essays explores not only Percy's connections to medicine but also the underappreciated impact his art has had--and can have--on medicine itself.

The contributors--physicians, philosophers, and literary critics--examine the relevance of Percy's work to current dilemmas in medical education and health policy. They reflect upon the role doctors and patients play in his novels, his family legacy of depression, how his medical background influenced his writing style, and his philosophy of psychiatry. They contemplate the private ways in which Percy's work affected their own lives and analyze the author's tendency to contrast the medical-scientific worldview with a more spiritual one. Assessing Percy's stature as an author and elucidating the many ways that reading and writing can combine with diagnosing and treating to offer an antidote to despair, they ask what it means to be a doctor, a writer, and a seeker of cures and truths--not just for the body but for the malaise and diseased spirituality of modern times.

This collection will appeal to lovers of literature as well as medical professionals--indeed, anyone concerned with medical ethics and the human side of doctoring.


“The Last Physician offers the pleasure of Walker Percy’s companionship in leading an examined life. The authors talk with and through Percy’s characters about medicine, about art and suffering, and about how their lives became richer as they acknowledge their share of the world’s troubles.” - Arthur W. Frank

“For Walker Percy’s fans and for readers who are just discovering his work, The Last Physician provides an explanation for why his stories were so seminal in the maturation of many an adult and many an aspiring physician. The issues he wrestled with in his fiction—isolation, ambivalence, alienation—are just as important in today’s society. The Last Physician is proof that Walker Percy’s work will endure, will continue to stimulate discussion, and will continue to inspire generations to come.” —Abraham Verghese

“An impressive collection... The contributors... reveal deeply personal responses to Percy’s work—not just intellectual and aesthetic appreciation but much more profound heartfelt reactions... The Last Physician will certainly engage Percy fans and it should also challenge and inspire others to read his work.” - Carol Donley , Medical Humanities Review

About the Author

John Lantos Portrait

John Lantos grew up in the rugged mountains of western Pennsylvania coal country. His father, a physician, was his childhood hero and role model.  His mother, a poet at heart, inspired him to become a writer.  He is an award-winning pediatrician, a prolific author, a beloved teacher, and an inspirational speaker.


Lantos was a resident in DC during the national controversy about Baby Doe, a baby with Down Syndrome.  That sparked a lifelong interest in bioethics and led to a post-doc fellowship at The University of Chicago. There, his groundbreaking work on neonatal bioethics and health policy led to leadership roles as Chief of General Pediatrics and Associate Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, and Associate Editor of Pediatrics.  Fifteen years ago, he moved to Kansas City to create and develop the Children’s Mercy Bioethics Center. 

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