Jacques Guilbert: physician, writer, globe-trotter

Photography : Camille Noyon - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme

Dr Jacques Guilbert is a general practitioner. As highly commended as he may be by his patients, he doesn’t recognise himself in the idealised portrait of a physician fully dedicated to his job. Indeed, the course of his life has rather been a strange series of fortunes and misfortunes, zigzags and bumps.

Born in Paris, he spent his childhood overseas in Guadeloupe and then the Reunion Island where his father was a pioneer doctor of the Social Security administration. He barely attended school until age 15, his mother, herself a self-taught woman, having taken care of his education so far. He thus completed high school as a youngster standing out for his curious and innovative mind, but certainly not as a model student, and painstakingly started the curriculum of medical studies at the university, repeating his first year, and tripling the second one.

It must be said that Jacques had enrolled at the School of Medicine of the University of Madagascar, which soon after, in 1972, happened to become the hotbed of violent demonstrations. Having begun as a student strike, the movement quickly turned into a revolution, extending to the whole country and ending up in the government’s being overthrown by a military coup and, as far as the French community was concerned, in an emergency repatriation in metropolitan France.

But for Jacques Guilbert metropolitan France was then an almost unknown country. Upon landing in Marseille in summer 1972 with the intention of resuming his studies, he found it extremely painful to adapt. Meanwhile his father was tired of his son’s repeated setbacks and decided to stop supporting him financially. Not entitled to any student’s grant, the young man had to work. At the seaport he got himself hired for an eclectic series of small jobs: painting afresh the diving bells of the famous Commandant Cousteau, loading cargos at a soap manufacture, overseeing the production of pasta in a nearby food factory, etc.

Luckily enough the hospital was located next to his home. The student with a poor academic record thus got the opportunity to learn his job in the field, working voluntarily in the emergency ward. Despite finding teachers’ lessons difficult to understand and even just to accurately copy from fellow students, he was able to catch up by practicing the skills ahead of time.

After graduation Jacques moved on to a master’s and then a doctor’s degree at the School of Medicine of the University of Montpellier, the oldest school of medicine among those still in operation worldwide, dating back from the XIIth century. He loved the school spirit there, married his wife, a girl of Berber descent, thus reconnecting with the overseas culture of his childhood.

With his diploma as a medical doctor finally awarded, he went back to the Reunion Island in 1982 and settled there as a general practitioner in Saint-Joseph, the southernmost town of the island, where the family doctor, as in all remote places around the globe, also served as a specialist, a psychologist, a confidant. But in 1995 fate strikes again. An unhappy divorce, a loan to reimburse, and his house had to be sold. So did his medical practice. Jacques Guilbert had no other choice but to return to metropolitan France, become a professional nomad again, moving from place to place to stand in for absent colleagues wherever needed, before opening his own practice anew in Montpellier. Finally, in 2007, a chance encounter presented him with the opportunity to participate in the creation of a private hospital, la Clinique du Valois, in Senlis: he jumped in and has lived and worked there ever since.

A chaotic itinerary, with loops and dead ends, but definitely some progress despite all adverse fortune. « It is a bit like Galileo’s epicycles. Everything turns. So does my life », says Jacques.

Even though medicine has accompanied him throughout his life, it is obvious, when listening to Jacques Guilbert’s telling the story of his torturous curriculum, that it is not his raison d’être. And indeed, during all these years, while practicing as a physician, he wrote thirteen novels. Historical narratives, fantastic novels, a detective story written in alexandrine verse, an iconoclastic rewriting of the Messiah’s story, an imaginary account of the life of Sun Tzu, which brings the ancient Chinese conqueror to conquer himself on the shores of Lake Baïkal.

None of these books has been published yet. To be true, Jacques has not engaged in tremendous efforts to promote his work. « I send the manuscript to one or two publishers and if it doesn’t work, I move on to something else », he says. For him, writing seems to be first and foremost a means to continue travelling the world, exploring and learning, be it only through imagination. Being published would be the icing on the cake; but even then Jacques would only consider doing it under a pen name, for the sake of not mingling his life as a writer with his life as a doctor.

His plans for the future? To retire in the southern region of Dordogne where he just bought a house, write, make furniture, and witness the success of his wife, a painter with a similarly atypical life path.

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