the revived edition of a thoughtful classic

Fearless Books is pleased to announce the timely reissue of a classic work by philosopher Jacob Needleman. In a time when the greatest controversy of medical care seems to be about how best to pay for it, The Way of the Physician brings back fundamental questions of what makes a true healer, what's involved in the uniquely intimate relationship of doctor and patient, and how we all face the inevitable challenges of maintaining health, dealing with illness, and dying.

"A good doctor is a good person." But for several decades, Needleman argues, the physician has been the dispirited pawn of a "medical arms race" in which financial considerations are taking precedence over the welfare of patients. Cut off from great ideas and awakening experiences, doctors are either complacent or riddled with tension. Addressing them directly, the author mourns: "You are dying in your tracks, and you know it."
Medicine for the practitioner and the patient alike, this book says that we need to train doctors to be wise healers working on the heart, not mechanics who fix bodies. Carrying resonances of Robert M. Persig's classic standard Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it points to the physician's quest, now, as our own: to rediscover the moral wonder that will enable us "to do the right thing and do it well."

NEW IN THIS EDITION: An Appendix of "Healing Questions" for medical professionals and health care consumers, designed to engender thoughtful discussions on the true "way of the physician."


"As Robert Persig did, Jacob Needleman has taken an elusive set of ideas and made of them a drama that even the hidebound materialist is bound to attend." —The New York Times

"His arguments are poetic and persuasive." —Kirkus Review

Philosopher Jacob Needleman has been teaching and writing about the riches of the inner life for four decades, giving a sophisticated but accessible perspective on the “big questions” of existence. A popular professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University who has been featured on Bill Moyers’ “World of Ideas” series, Needleman’s most recent works include What is God?, An Unknown World, and the Fearless Books title Necessary Wisdom.





At the beginning of my second year of college, I took a part-time job as an orderly at the Cambridge General Hospital, a few blocks away from the university campus. Like many city hospitals, it was run on inadequate funds and served mainly emergency cases and indigents (government medical insurance did not yet exist). Because of the low budget, it was actually a more interesting place to work; employees like me were given a variety of jobs that otherwise would have been divided among more specialized personnel. I was assigned to the men's postoperative recovery ward where my duties comprised those of a physician's assistant, nurse's aide, and janitor. Most of the patients were elderly derelicts.

I also served as a very original kind of messenger boy, ferrying large and small pieces of the human body from the operating room to the pathology laboratory. This required a strong stomach. At any given time, I might be called to the operating room where I would be handed anything from a piece of tissue in a Petri dish to a whole human leg or arm, which I had to wrap in newspaper and carry through the halls and elevators to another wing of the building.

Fortunately, I had worked during the previous summer as an autopsy assistant at the University of Pennsylvania hospital and had no difficulty with the more grisly aspects of this task. That experience in the autopsy room was extraordinary in many ways, as it happened to be a very "busy" summer and I had to help with two or three corpses every day. My "customers" included children and young men and women along with the aged. My job was to scrub down the bodies and, after the autopsy, to dispose of the internal organs and to stuff the visceral cavity with excelsior. I also had to saw open the skull in a very exact way, remove the brain for sectioning, tie off the major cranial blood vessels and then replace the skull and sew up the entire body for delivery to the funeral parlor.

I was troubled and also bemused by the great spectrum of reactions evoked in me during this period and could not understand the calm and ease with which the doctors — whom I assisted during the autopsy — treated everything. At first, I assumed that they had learned to master such reactions and I respected their objectivity and concentration. But by the end of summer, my respect for the doctors had dimmed without my knowing exactly why. I had a gnawing sense that their apparent objectivity was really a kind of numbness.

In the excitement of the beginning of the school year, all these impressions moved to the background, but they came to the fore again when I assumed my duties as an orderly.

It began on the very first day of my job with an incident that still makes me laugh and shudder when I think back on it. While I was being acquainted with all the tasks that I would have to perform on the ward, a call came from the OR that a specimen had to be delivered to pathology, and I was sent to do the errand. Dressed in my crisp hospital whites, I hurried to the OR and introduced myself as the new surgical orderly. Matter-of-factly, the attendant handed me a large, stainless — steel basin containing a human leg that had been amputated just below the knee. I did not blink an eye, but when I was on the other side of the doors, I propped myself against the wall until my head stopped swimming. Two very vivid thoughts came to my mind and stayed there: I thought with sadness of the young woman whose leg this was and, at the same time I thought, as I looked closely at the leg, that if in the entire universe nothing else had existed except this extraordinary object, even then God the Creator would deserve to be worshipped.

Following instructions, I wrapped the leg in newspaper and marched into the corridor with this remarkable package tucked firmly under my arm. Not knowing my way about the hospital, however, I found myself walking through areas crowded with visitors and began to worry that some nonmedical person would see what I was carrying and would faint there on the spot. Surreptitiously, I adjusted the newspaper so that it would not have the shape of the object it contained. I was disturbed to see that the paper was already soaked with blood — I had neglected to wrap the leg first in a sheet of plastic.

Unable to locate the service elevators, I nervously entered one of the public elevators that, on the next stop, suddenly became so crowded with all sorts of people that it almost burst. When I saw that blood was now dripping from the package, I clumsily tried to double the loose papers at the bottom. At just that moment, the doors opened again and a fat woman standing behind me charged through the crowd to get out, knocking against me in the process. The package flew out of my arms and, as the doors closed, there for all to see was a bloody human leg reposing on the floor.

There were screams, shouts of "Oh, my God!" and an extraordinary amount of physical movement, considering the narrow, enclosed space of the elevator.

In moments such as this, one becomes acutely and quietly aware of all the contradictory impulses in oneself. In the brief time that passed before the doors opened on the next floor and the occupants of the elevator rushed out in a mad dash, I witnessed several things in myself, as though my consciousness were looking down from the ceiling in Olympian impartiality.

My first impulse was to pretend it was not my fault and to act as shocked as everyone else, which I did so persuasively that, even with my blood-soaked clothes, the passengers did not see me until the next impulse manifested itself, even more absurd than the first. I heard myself apologizing in tones appropriate to someone who has dropped a teacup at a dinner party — "I beg your pardon, please excuse me" — and when I bent down to pick up the object it produced a new and even louder round of shrieks and agitation. All the while, from far down in myself, a huge wave of laughter was rising and, alongside it, a sensation of absolute terror and disgust in the pit of my stomach. It seems that for a brief instant, as I bent over to pick up the severed leg, my eyes fell on all the other human legs that were crowded around me; and right there, in the pit of my stomach, I experienced an instinctual comprehension of the mortal destiny of all the individual human bodies in that elevator that were attached to those legs.

As I look back on it now, I see that this incident was the psychological trigger of the crisis that built up in me during the three months that followed. Because of this incident, my experiences on the surgical ward attained an unusual intensity and balance for someone as immature as I was, involving not only emotional reactions but also perceptions of human suffering that reached down, however slightly, to my instinctual mind as well.