Women in Medicine and Other Novelties – An Interview with Author and Physician, Dr. Leonard Goldberg

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Dr. Leonard Goldberg is, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with. A Charleston, SC native, he received his medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina and went on to become board certified in Internal Medicine, Hematology, and Rheumatology. Despite a successful and busy practice as a consulting physician at UCLA, he has somehow found the time to cultivate a second career as a best-selling novelist. His first medical thriller, Transplant, was published in 1980. Since then he has written a total of fourteen novels, the most recent of which is The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, available June 6, 2017. I caught up with Dr. Goldberg to ask him a few questions about his new novel, his career path, his thoughts about women in medicine, and his impressions of the challenges facing healthcare professionals today. I have to say, I’m even more of a fan after hearing his answers!

KS: Your new novel, The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, takes place in 1914. I was interested to see that the main character is Joanna Blalock, a nurse by training who has a special knack for forensics. Did you plan from the beginning to star the same protagonist as in the popular “Joanna Blalock” series? Is she the same character in a different time period, or is she meant to be an ancestor of forensic pathologist, Dr. Joanna Blalock?

LG: Very perceptive, Kristine. The Joanna Blalock in The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes is the long ago grandmother of the modern day forensic pathologist who carries the same name. The idea of course is that the modern day Joanna has inherited some of Sherlock Holmes’s genes, which explains her remarkable deductive abilities. A more complete family history goes as follows: the Victorian Joanna’s son fought for England as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War 2, migrated to America after the war, and became the father of the modern day Joanna while a successful banker in San Francisco.

KS: Speaking of Joanna Blalock, I think it’s great that you have featured a female physician in so many of your novels. What made you choose a female as your protagonist when writing Deadly Medicine, the first of nine books in the Joanna Blalock series? What were the challenges in writing from that perspective? What made it more fun?

LG: I chose a stunning, youthful-appearing female for a number of reasons. First and foremost, people would tend to underestimate her because of her beauty and relatively young age. Thus she would continually have to prove herself in a field dominated by older, more experienced males. Hers was not an easy road to travel, but she persevered and succeeded despite the obvious obstacles. I too had a youthful appearance when I began as an Assistant Professor at UCLA and was often taken to be an intern, so I have some insight into overcoming a youthful look. There were no major challenges writing from a female perspective. All I had to do was watch the women on staff at UCLA fight their way to the top where they belonged.

KS: I love that perspective! And I can definitely relate to being taken for a younger physician. It can be both a blessing and a curse!

Most of your novels are set in today’s world, and I’ve read that you get most of your ideas from the news. Your new story takes place in the early 1900s. Where did you get the idea for The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes?

LG: I actually got the idea from a critic who happened to give me a fine review on an earlier novel. He stated that the story “seemed to fly along on the Holmesian wings of Joanna Blalock.” That was the moment I connected Joanna Blalock to Sherlock Holmes and I knew that someday I would tie Joanna into Sherlock in a stand-alone novel. And I eventually did in The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes.

KS: Was it hard to switch gears and set your story in the past? Did you have to do more research than in your previous, contemporary novels?

LG: It did require a fair amount of research to convincingly go back to the early post Victorian days. There were a variety of seemingly little things that had to be looked into in order to assure accuracy of the novel. For example, when did automobiles appear in numbers on the streets of London and horse-drawn carriages begin to disappear? When were the cobblestone streets paved over with asphalt? And more importantly, what professional positions in medicine were available to women in this era, even those of high intellect? It took a lot of work, but I think I got it right. Knowing the streets of London presented no problem. During my sabbatical year from UCLA, I lived in London for a year and did research at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which is featured in my novel. By the way, my apartment was located ten blocks from Sherlock Holmes’s rooms at 221b Baker Street.

KS: Very cool! As you mentioned, Dr. Joanna Blalock has been described by critics as “Holmesian,” and your newest book puts her grandmother right alongside the characters of Sir Author Conan Doyle. Would it be fair to say that the Sherlock Holmes books have influenced your writing? What other authors do you admire?

LG: Of course the Sherlock Holmes influenced me a great deal. As a youngster I read all of Sherlock’s stories so many times that the volumes became dog-eared. I knew all the characters in depth so it was no problem for me to feature Inspector Lestrade’s son and the son of John Watson in my novel, and endow them with some of the talents (and flaws) their fathers had. It made for a nice continuum to go with the definite Sherlockian characteristics that Joanna possessed. As far as my favorite authors are concerned, they are James Clavell (Shogan), Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), and Tess Gerritsen (Harvest). For character development, no one can match Charles Dickens. Try to find a more sympathetic soul in all of literature that can compare to Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

KS: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes seems like it could be the beginning of a new series. Do you have a sequel in the works?

LG: Indeed it will be a series. The contract I signed with St. Martin’s Press calls for 3 novels. I am currently on the second.

KS: Do you still practice medicine? How do you manage your time? What do your colleagues think of your career as an author? What does your family think of your writing?

LG: I no longer practice and spend every day writing. When I was in practice, I had to literally squeeze in my writing. I devoted 3 hours every night (if the phone didn’t ring), and a bit more on the weekends. It made for very full days and nights, but once the writing bug bites you are sucked into it for life. Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to it as “the intoxicating pleasure of authorship.” My family and colleagues love my stories, but of course they are very biased. Of particular interest, my colleague always saw themselves in some of my characters. I told them that they were 50% of a given character. They had to guess which 50%.

KS: The “writing bug.” I think I’m going to have to use that phrase.

On a more serious note, what do you see as the biggest challenges we face as healthcare providers in 2017? What are the biggest differences in practicing medicine now compared with when you first became a physician?

LG: Not surprisingly, the answers to both questions are intertwined. In the 60s and 70s, medicine for the most part was controlled by physicians. The rules and regulations were set by the doctors and their medical boards and societies. It was a simpler, far less complicated world back then. But this has gradually changed over the years. With the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, the government and the insurance companies began to take over the practice of medicine. Add to this, the military health services, the VA system, the Public Health Hospitals, and the HMOs, etc., and it becomes quite apparent that much of medicine in our country is now dictated by government rules and regulations, in concert with the giant insurance companies. We seem to be headed to a single payer system or perhaps a National Health System, much like what is present in most of the western world. How we will adapt to this system and whether it will eventually work to everyone’s benefit, only time will tell. The big question and challenge is whether such a system can be devised and implemented to fit our country’s needs, yet still maintain the high quality of medicine we are accustomed to.

KS: You make some very good points that I think most physicians would agree with. It’s an interesting time in medicine, and I think there are a lot of big changes on the horizon.

Leonard, thank you so much for your time. I wish you success with the release of The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes. Can’t wait to get my copy!

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