ALIEM Bookclub: A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies  is the brilliant debut collection of stories by physician turned-author John Murray. Inspired by his background in science and medicine, the novel focuses on the lives of researchers, physicians, nurses, explorers and collectors, who share a love for detail and scientific explanation. Murray’s stories are a wonderful balance of fiction and facts, which take the reader to the most enthralling places around the globe: from the slums of Bombay during a Cholera epidemic to remote areas of the key west; from the peaks of the Himalayas to a United Nations refugee camp in Africa. Entomology, microbiology, and neuroscience are among the areas of expertise described in this book. Despite an obsession by each of Murray’s characters to categorize and create order of the world through their field of study, the core of the stories deals with an emotional hurdle that requires the protagonist to respond to a more chaotic inner and personal world.
In a note addressed to librarians , Murray explains the background behind this book: “Many of the characters in these stories are displaced and coping with change.” He wrote this book after working in medical programs in developing countries for a few years. He described that he was sitting at a meeting in Ethiopia with colleagues when he realized that everyone in the room was divorced. He began to think of who these people really were. “A lot of doctors do not have happy personal lives, and do not deal well with emotions, and devote themselves to their work to an almost pathologic degree. This was the germ for the stories of this book, because I wanted to imagine how people with very technical training saw the world – and what was really motivating them. I was also interested in showing what conditions are really like in developing countries, and the difficulties faced by every day people.” Murray further points out that doctors and scientists often have very sophisticated ways of rationalizing what they face. “Because they do not known how to express emotions directly, they do it in other ways—by thinking technically, or in intellectual terms, or by not thinking about it all.”
I first picked up this book at the library, shortly after it was published. I was about to begin medical school. Years later I ordered my own copy because I loved the cover just as much as the stories inside. While reading the novel, I imagined the possible places I would travel and the experiences I would have during my journey of studying and practicing medicine. Where would I go? Who would I meet? What would I see? I wondered what unique perspective and transformation I would undergo through my profession. My decision to endure medical studies likely said a lot about who I was. In the ALiEM Book Club, we’ve read What Doctors Feel and A History of the Present Illness. These books, like A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, are written by physician-authors and use narratives to highlight an emotional transformation that occurs through medical training.
- Many medical schools now seek students with a humanities background and implement a narrative curriculum alongside the traditional medical classes. What benefit does this have? How is storytelling connecting to the practice of medicine?
- Murray writes that physicians see the world in a more technical way. In what ways has your medical training affected the way in which you cope with emotional experiences?
- A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies is a collection of stories written by a physician turned author. Does medical training encourage physicians to reflect and share stories?
- Murray, John. A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories. Harper Collins Publishers. New York, NY. 2003
- Murray, John. A Note to Librarians: “ A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies”
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