10 famous medical school dropouts (Darwin, Gasol And More!)

Failing medical school need not be so daunting. Plenty of people, from worlds as diverse as elite sports, literature, entertainment and exploration, have done just that. All while making a name for themselves anyway.

Famous med school dropouts you might not know about?

  • Charles Darwin
  • Roald Amundsen
  • Andre Breton
  • Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Pau Gasol

And plenty more!

Here we take a look at some of these stories, figure out what went wrong and hopefully steer you clear of the mistakes…

Charles Darwin

The father of evolutionary theory himself once was a reluctant med student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Said to have neglected his studies due to a broader interest in the natural world, Darwin even spent 1825 working under his physician father in Shropshire doing an apprentice year.

According to Wikipedia, Darwin’s aversion to studying medicine caused his father to take him out of what was “the best Medical University in the UK at the time” and put him on the road to becoming an Anglican priest.

Darwin’s switch actually turned out rather well as he moved to Cambridge and fell in with other naturalists who likened scientific work to religious theology. Pretty soon after he went on a voyage with the HMS Beagle, a trip that was to birth many of the ideas in his famous book On the Origin of Species.

Carl Icahn

Carl Icahn is a name synonymous with New York City, business and philanthropy.

With a net worth well over $16 billion, as well as a stint serving as a special economic adviser to the Trump administration, Icahn hasn’t done too badly since dropping out of med school back in the late 1950’s.

Dropping out after two years to join the army reserves, this corporate raider was once doing the lecture rounds at New York University School of Medicine.

Proof that maybe there’s more money outside of medicine than in, Icahn’s business endeavours did well to avoid the trading time for money conundrum that affects most doctors.

Gertrude Stein

Eclectically known as a novelist, poet, playwright and art collector, Gertrude Stein is perhaps best remembered in modern history as a key figure of modernism.

Residing in Paris during the roaring twenties, Stein was at the forefront of an American contingent that brought together Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound with the European genius of Picasso, Matisse and Dali. She was also once a supremely gifted med student at John Hopkins too.

Here’s Kathy Bates playing her in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (a very cool film)…

Stein’s time as a med student is pretty interesting.

According to Wikipedia, Stein’s recollection of her time in med school is marked by her struggles to succeed in a male dominated environment. She made it to the fourth year before failing a course and leaving.

Roald Amundsen

This famous Norwegian explorer was part of the first confirmed expedition to the South Pole in 1911 and a key figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Born to a family of shipowners, Amundsen had actually promised his mother to fulfil her wishes of becoming a doctor before abandoning his studies at 21 following her death.

From there he went on to become a sailor, joining the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, an expedition traversing Canada’s Northwest Passage and eventually expeditions to both poles.

Perhaps it’s safe to assume Amundsen was from being a lazy medical student given his determined and adventurous attitude!

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I studied the Beat poets and 1950’s counterculture in my previous degree (a long time before my own adventures in med school).

Author of Naked Lunch, Burroughs is one of the most prominent American writers of the last century and considered a father of postmodernism. He was also pretty candid about his years of heroin abuse in both writing and interviews.

As you’ll see in this clip.

What I didn’t know, until researching this article, is that Burroughs was actually a medical school drop out from an institution in Vienna, Austria.

Andre Breton

Breton was a French writer and poet perhaps best known as one of the founders of the surrealist movement.

His most notable work, The Surrealist Manifesto, detailed the cultural movement that arrived in Europe in the aftermath of World War I that sought to blend to the boundaries between dream and reality. Interestingly, Breton’s main focus as a med student was mental illness.

His studies were cut short by his enlistment in the French army during the WWI.

William Henry Harrison

The ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison was also a rather unfortunate one.

He died after a month in office in 1841, becoming the shortest-serving president in US history. The cause was said to be typhoid or pneumonia.

Harrison’s history as a med student is also particularly bittersweet. Entering the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, Harrison’s father died shortly after, meaning he was unable to fund the remainder of his studies. As a result, Harrison left and embarked on a military career instead.

Not a terrible second choice on reflection!

Jonathan Safran Foer

An American novelist who rose to prominence with the ethical screed Eating Animals (something that actually inspired me to go vegan for a while), Foer is also well known for his 2002 work Everything is Illuminated.

Graduating from Princeton with a degree in philosophy, Foer went on to attend Mount Sinai School of Medicine (coincidentally named after Charles Icahn, above) for a brief period. He dropped out due to his burgeoning writing career.

Still keen to address health-related issues, here is talking on Ellen discussing factory farming and human eating habits.

James Joyce

Prestigious Irish author James Joyce is widely considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Perhaps best known for his works Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s writing features his unique “stream of consciousness” style that heavily went on to inspire the Beats (and Burroughs, aforementioned). Known as “brilliant student”, Joyce graduated from University College Dublin studying English, French and Italian.

Deciding to go into medicine as an international student in Paris shortly after his first degree, Joyce abandoned his studies soon after starting.

According to Wikipedia, this was because Joyce already had struggles with Chemistry in English and also had difficulty understanding the technical side of the course delivered in French. Eventually Joyce returned to Ireland following a telegram about his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Perhaps he’d be surprised to learn that medical school is a little easier in Europe these days.

Pau Gasol

Deviating away form literature and artistic types, next up is NBA basketball star and Spanish athletic hero Pau Gasol.

Widely considered as one of the best European players to grace the American basketball leagues, Gasol made a huge name for himself playing at LA Lakers, winning two championships back-to-back in 2009 and 10.

Growing up in Barcelona, Gasol first had aspirations to become a doctor, enrolling at University of Barcelona Medical School before his professional career at FC Barcelona took over.

Said to enjoy reading medical journals in his spare time, Gasol still maintains a key interest in the field.

Here’s a clip of him sitting in with surgeons to fix a patient’s scoliosis…


Who says dropping out of med school has to be a death sentence? Sometimes the pressure, debt and stress that builds up might mean other avenues are worth pursuing instead. Hopefully the aforementioned characters on this list might serve as inspiration over what you can you on to achieve should you decide medicine’s not for you.

Image Credit: cottonbro at Pexels