5 Questions: Charlotte Jacobs on biography and medicine

The retired Stanford professor’s most recent book, a biography of the polio-vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, was published in the spring.

Charlotte Jacobs
Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Early in her academic career, Charlotte Jacobs, MD, professor emerita of medicine at Stanford, focused her research and writing on solid cancerous tumors. When she later became associate dean, she wrote about medical education and clinical training. Simmering below these professional writing endeavors, however, was a desire to also pursue a different kind of writing.

Her first biography, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, was published in 2010. Her most recent book, Jonas Salk: A Life, was published in the spring. It tells the story of the brilliant and complicated physician who discovered and developed the first vaccine for polio. [An excerpt was published in the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.]

In a recent interview, Jacobs, the Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor in the School of Medicine, Emerita, talked with writer Penny Hodgson about her dual careers in medicine and writing.

Q: What originally led you to a side career as a biographer?

Jacobs: I loved biography from childhood. Years later, during a sabbatical year at Stanford, I decided to take creative writing. I was interested mainly in biography writing, but I knew I had to develop the craft and the skills of a writer first.

Then two things converged: Henry Kaplan, the eminent Stanford radiation oncologist and cancer pioneer, died very quickly of lung cancer. He was an amazing man who designed the first linear accelerator and with Saul Rosenberg was responsible in large part for the cure for Hodgkin’s disease. At the same time that Kaplan died, my creative-writing instructor introduced me to Ehud Havazelet, a fellow at Stanford who went on to teach creative writing at Oregon State and the University of Oregon.

We started a weekly writing seminar. My homework was working on my biography of Henry Kaplan. I was doing research on his life and work, conducting interviews, and also studying the craft of biography writing. I went from being hooked on reading biography as a child to being hooked on writing biography as an adult.

Q: How are you able to meld your doctor life with your writer life?

Jacobs: Oncology is a positive field. There are not too many subspecialties in medicine, except infectious disease, in which you cure someone. There aren’t many opportunities to follow someone for 10 years after you’ve treated them for an advanced, life-threatening disease. In oncology, I see cancer patients get married, have children and go on to live a normal life. This is incredibly rewarding.

That said, I don’t meld my oncology life with my biographer life at all. When I’m writing or doing research on one of my books, I’m totally focused on that. And when I’m with my patients, I’m totally focused on them. One thing I learned from Henry Kaplan, who had a whirlwind of activity surrounding him, was that when he was in the exam room, the patient was his only concern.

I do think my background in science helped me be a better writer, though. I chose subjects who were in the field of science or medicine because that is what I know. One of the hardest tasks was interpreting my subjects’ work to the general public. I used to think if my next-door neighbor, who was a smart housewife, couldn’t understand and enjoy the books, I had failed.

Knowing academic medicine also helped. Jonas Salk ran into major political hurdles, and he was not treated kindly — some of which was his own doing. Having spent my entire career in academic medicine, I could understand the world in which he worked.

Q: Do you have a set schedule for writing?

Jacobs: I try to block off a half-day or two half-days a week to write. I applied for writing fellowships during which for a month I did nothing but write. Every evening, other artists, writers and musicians talked about their work or had open studios or played their compositions. Those fellowships provided wonderful, creative time.

Whenever on vacation, whether skiing or at the beach, I took along my writing material. Or I’d try to squeeze in an hour at night after the kids were in bed. When my boys were playing upper-level soccer, we attended tournaments all around northern California. During the breaks between games, I sat in the car and wrote since they certainly didn’t want to be around their mother.

I could find snippets during every day to write. Even today I find that to be the case.

Q: How did you find publishers for your books?

Jacobs: Finding an agent is very hard, particularly for a first-time author. My husband got me the book Publishing for Dummies. I followed all the instructions, and I compiled a long list of agents. I had my A list, my B list and C list.

I sent out my first five queries to my dream agents, and to my surprise Robert Lescher asked me to come to New York and not to sign with anybody else. Although he was a well-known agent, he had trouble getting the Kaplan book published by any of the major houses, I think for a few reasons: One, I was an unknown author; two, my subject matter was not well-known to the general public; and three, as my first effort, I had not yet mastered the art of biography. So he started looking at academic presses, and I ended up at Stanford University Press.

 Robert unfortunately died before the Salk book was finished, and I was at a loss because he had been an independent agent. So I contacted my friend Abraham Verghese [an author and Stanford professor of medicine], who recommended me to his agent, Mary Evans. Through Mary, I was introduced to a highly talented young agent, Rachel Vogel. She had a bidding war going on over my Salk biography within a short period of time.

It came down to my choosing between a popular press, which wanted the book to be much shorter and cover just some aspects of Salk’s life, and Oxford University Press, which wanted a traditional, first, formal biography of Jonas Salk. It was an easy choice.

Q: Beside the two biographies, you have also performed in community theater and written something else. Can we end by your telling me a little about this other work?

Jacobs: I co-wrote a musical comedy with a composer-lyricist who’s won a number of Emmys. It’s called Just My TYPE and is based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has gone through a number of readings in the Bay Area with subsequent rewrites. Now we have an agent in New York who is showing it around to different new-works programs. I’ve enjoyed collaborating on a musical comedy almost as much as working on the biographies. Yet my greatest fulfillment still comes from caring for patients with cancer.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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