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7 Famous Folks Who Were Also Doctors

Several famous people started out life as doctors, including (L-R) Anton Chekhov, Arthur Canon Doyle, Maria Montessori, Mae Jemison, Ken Jeong, Che Guevara and Michelle Bachelet. NASA/Wikipedia/Noel Vasquez/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

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Super Bowl LIV, with six minutes to go, the San Francisco 49ers are 10 points up and things aren't looking good for Kansas City. But six minutes is a lifetime in football, more than enough time for Patrick Mahomes to throw two touchdowns and give the Chiefs the game. It's their first win in nearly 50 years. But it's historic for other reasons as well.

One of the offensive linemen protecting Patrick Mahomes from getting sacked is Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a giant of a man hailing from Montreal, Quebec in Canada. He's also a medical doctor, recently graduated from McGill University. That makes him the first M.D. to play in the NFL, and the first to win a Super Bowl.

Doctors who are famous in fields other than medicine are pretty rare. The quantity of time, energy and dedication required to become an M.D. is so enormous, it's nearly impossible to understand how a doctor could ever be anything other than a physician. That said, more than a few have managed to find fame outside their area of expertise. Here are seven doctors who rose to non-medical fame.

1. Che Guevara

Ernesto "Che" Guevara was severely asthmatic, and humid tropical air just made it worse. When, in 1956, he landed on the southeastern shores of Cuba with a small group of guerillas led by Fidel Castro, the breathing conditions were about as bad as they could be. But Guevara had a ferocious will and he forced himself to carry on. Although he'd embarked on the mission as the unit's doctor, circumstances obliged him to become a military leader. It turned out that the role of revolutionary commander was one he was born to play.

Long before he became an anti-establishment pin-up, Guevara studied medicine in his hometown at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. But a continental motorcycle trip he made while still in school opened his eyes to inequalities and injustices across South America. Politically galvanized by this experience, Guevara was eventually drawn to a revolutionary movement to overthrow the corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Battista. It was during that extraordinary conflict that Dr. Guevara became Comandante Che and a hero of the Cuban Revolution. He was later executed by the Bolivian army after trying to overthrow the government in that country.

2. Anton Chekhov

Is it enough to quietly revolutionize Russian literature, to pen short stories that would become models of the craft and reinvent drama with plays that would be staged and restaged around the world by generations to come? Apparently not. Anton Chekhov was also an accomplished medical doctor who supported his extended family with his income from both his medical practice and his writing.

Anton Chekhov
Influential playwright Anton Chekhov was also an accomplished medical doctor.
Wikimedia Commons

The author of plays like "Uncle Vanya" and "The Seagull" was born in Taganrog, Russia in 1860. He grew up under the tyrannical rule of his hyper-religious father who ran a grocery business into the ground by the time Chekhov was a teenager. As a way of helping out his struggling family while still a medical student, young Chekhov took to writing short comic sketches at warp speed. The quantity of these early works dwarfs the later writing on which his reputation is founded.

As he aged, gravity took hold and his work appeared to lose its comedic shine. But Chekhov might have disputed this. In later years, he grew irritated with theatrical productions of his plays that appeared grimly tragic. They were farces, he insisted, it's just that the humor was subtler.

By the early 1890s, Chekhov was famed throughout Russia for his extraordinary body of written work, but that didn't stop him from working as a doctor and medical administrator during a horrible famine in 1891. In the years following, he largely gave up medicine to concentrate on writing, producing some of his most memorable and influential short stories.

3. Michelle Bachelet

When she was still a teenager, Bachelet was tortured in a secret prison. Not, she insists, as badly as many others in Chile at the time, but it was still a terrifying and brutal experience. In a different part of the prison, her mother was undergoing the same treatment. And Bachelet's father, a military commander, had been tortured himself and died of a heart attack while in custody in 1974.

Those were nightmare years in Chile after the U.S.-backed military coup in which Augusto Pinochet seized power from the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. But Bachelet managed to survive it and earn a medical degree in surgery as well as a specialization in pediatrics and public health. She had a hard time finding work as doctor because of her family's history, but was able to join a medical clinic that treated victims of torture.

When the Pinochet era finally came to an end, Bachelet became interested in politics and eventually served as the minister of health in the government of Ricardo Lagos before her appointment as minister of national defense. It was in that latter capacity that she gained fame by leading a rescue operation from the top of an amphibious tank during a flood in Santiago.

A reluctant candidate for president, she won her first term in 2006, becoming the first female president of the country and the first woman to lead a Latin American country who was not the wife of a previous political leader. Her cabinet was composed of equal parts men and women and was populated by members of a diverse coalition of political parties.

After her term ended in 2010, Bachelet became deeply involved in international organizations, including the United Nations (U.N.), where she headed up the newly created body, U.N. Women. But then, in an unusual move, she returned to Chilean politics, winning a second term as President of Chile in 2014. She now serves as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

4. Ken Jeong

"It's none of your business but I ate my twin in utero."

For fans of the cult TV phenomenon, "Community," it's hard to pick a favorite quote from Señor Chang, the self-declared "Spanish genius," who later admits that he faked his way into the job of teaching Spanish at a community college by "relying on phrases from Sesame Street."

This role came just two years after his breakout turn as the grumpy Dr. Kuni in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007). Jeong went on to star as the unhinged Mr. Chow in the "Hangover" movies.

As his fans well know, Jeong was able to pull on personal experience for the character of Dr. Kuni, since he is, in fact a medical doctor. Indeed, he was still practicing medicine while acting on the side when Apatow discovered his talents and turned him into a star.

Ken Jeong
Ken Jeong visits "Extra" at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2019.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Raised in North Carolina, Jeong studied medicine and theater at Duke University and obtained his M.D. from the University of North Carolina. While still a medical resident in New Orleans, he won the Big Easy Laff Off in 1995. Two of the judges, former NBC President Brandon Tartikoff and Improv founder Budd Friedman, urged him to head to Los Angeles where Jeong started performing in comedy clubs and on TV shows.

Even now, as a highly successful comedian and actor, he maintains his medical license. In 2015, he created and starred in a TV sitcom about — what else? — a doctor juggling his practice and his family life. Called "Dr. Ken," it ran for two seasons.

5. Maria Montessori

At the end of the 19th century, Rome was the capital of a new country called Italy, which was still struggling to assert its national identity. The medical schools were among the least demanding in Europe, mostly designed to confer status on privileged young men who semi-occasionally attended lectures and managed to pass a few exams. Violating every norm was a whip-smart young woman determined to soak up all the medical knowledge available. She proved to be one of the most exceptional students the school had ever produced. When Maria Montessori graduated from medical school in 1896, she was among the first women in Italy to do so.

Specializing in psychiatry, she found work in an institution for children with mental disabilities. The conventional treatment at the time was sensory deprivation in order to avoid exciting and disorienting the patients. Montessori observed that these institutionalized children craved stimuli and would search them out wherever they could. She experimented with offering them different kinds of sensory experiences and found that with the right approach, she was able to engage children who had been considered lost causes.

In 1907, she was asked to head the Casa dei Bambini, a day care center in San Lorenzo, a poor community in Rome and thus began her education revolution. Her famous maxim was "follow the child," which meant that teachers should let the children's natural interests dictate where learning went. She introduced many educational materials but only kept the ones that the children were drawn to. She noticed that children had a natural desire to learn and thought the classroom should foster that.

The incredible success of her methodology meant that by 1910 there were Montessori schools across Europe. The first one in the U.S. opened in 1911 and Montessori schools are still popular all over the world today.

6. Arthur Conan Doyle

In Edinburgh, in the late 1870s, Dr. A. C. Doyle, already in possession of a significant mustache, served as clerk to the famous surgeon, Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell, who was also a lecturer, frequently exhorted his students to make their diagnoses based on close examination of their patients. He would demonstrate his methods by picking somebody unknown to him and, through observation alone, deduce what they did for a living and what they'd been up to recently.

Roughly 10 years later, Doyle, by then a qualified doctor with an advanced medical degree, was trying to establish a practice in London with little success. While waiting for patients to knock at his door, he whiled away the hours by jotting down stories. He'd been writing fiction ever since medical school, but had published little. Thinking back to his days in Edinburgh, he remembered his old teacher. Couldn't those forensic methods be applied to the investigation of criminal activity? What if he were to recast Dr. Bell as a detective? A detective with a prickly demeanor, a talent for playing the violin and a regrettable fondness for cocaine...

The result was the celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes. After finding success as a writer, Doyle gave up practicing medicine, "with a wild rush of joy," as he put it.

7. Mae Jemison

Watching the moon landings of the 1960s from her childhood home in Chicago, young Mae Jemison loved almost everything she saw. Almost. Two things bugged her. One, the astronauts were exclusively white. Two, they were exclusively male.

Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison become the first African American woman in space when she blasted out of Earth's atmosphere on the Endeavor in 1992.
NASA

But for an African American girl who wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, there was only one place to look — the future. Luckily, the future was on TV and there she found Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, translator and communications officer aboard the Starship Enterprise.

Enduring racism and racial discrimination while a student at Stanford University in the mid-1970s, Jemison graduated with a degree in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. From there she went on to medical school at Cornell University. Among her many accomplishments after graduation, she spent two years stationed in Africa as a doctor in the Peace Corps. Along the way she became fluent in Russian, Swahili and Japanese.

But she'd never given up on her ambition to become an astronaut. Once Sally Ride broke NASA's space ceiling in 1983, Jemison applied for the job. But then disaster struck. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air and NASA closed its doors to applicants while it regrouped. In 1987, Jemison was one of only 15 people chosen from 2,000 applicants to join the space program. On Sept. 12, 1992, she blasted out of Earth's atmosphere on the Endeavor, becoming the first African American woman in space.

In 1993, life came full circle when Jemison played the part of Lieutenant Palmer in a cameo on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Since then, she's taught at Cornell, written a children's book, created a space camp for kids and is currently leading the 100 Year Starship project with DARPA to ensure human space travel to another star can happen within the next 100 years.

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