Michael Crichton: A Devout and Honest Skeptic

Imagine this situation: you're a relatively new novelist who has just won an Edgar Award, the Emmy or Oscar of mystery writing. Should be pretty exciting, shouldn't it?

But what if you wrote it under a carefully protected pen name? And the novel used real people, thinly disguised, but obvious to anyone who knew who the author really was? And you have to accept the award in person?

And then imagine the real people are faculty and staff at Harvard Medical School. Where you wrote your Edgar-Award-winning novel. In your spare time.

Of course, your suspension of disbelief has now utterly collapsed. Spare time?  In medical school?

But it's a true story; the medical student involved was writing thrillers under the pen names Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, the latter a reference to his unusual six-foot-nine-inch height. The medical student's name: (John) Michael Crichton. Crichton died on November 4 at the age of 66.

He hadn't been a very successful medical student -- he never overcame the problem that he grew faint at the sight of needles and when drawing blood. Not that this is necessarily a disqualifier in medicine -- it's an old medical school joke that a psychiatrist is just a surgeon who can't stand the sight of blood.

Crichton, though, had started out to be a writer; he'd just transferred to anthropology when he grew dissatisfied with the English department at Harvard.  (He'd submitted one of George Orwell's essays as his own; not only had the professor not recognized it, but he'd only given the essay a B-.) From reading his autobiographical essays, you get the idea that he'd not felt he'd been all that successful as a Harvard undergraduate either, having only managed to eke out a degree in anthropology summa cum laude and a visiting lectureship at Oxford, before deciding on medical school.

By the time he'd completed his M.D. degree, he had six books published -- three in 1969 alone -- including The Andromeda Strain, which promptly became a New York Times bestseller. He'd also had an apparent demyelinization episode, a hint that he might well have multiple sclerosis.

He never practiced as a physician; his multiple sclerosis, if that's what it was, never recurred. He became a full-time writer and after The Andromeda Strain became a successful movie, he set out to become a director. He started with Pursuit (a.k.a. Binary), a filmed version of one of his "John Lange" novels, and moved on to direct eight more movies, including Westworld, Coma, and The Great Train Robbery. He also created the hit TV series ER, still running after 15 seasons.