Not so long ago doctors rarely wrote anything longer than a prescription. Now, it seems, medics are queuing up to put pen to paper, apparently compelled to press upon us their memoirs, confessions and philosophical dilemmas. Normally, most of us ordinary mortals are lucky if we are given seven minutes in a doctor’s company. But these days doctors want to share with us their most visceral experiences, to divulge their darkest moments and draw us into their blood-soaked worlds in detail and at length.
Although those of us who try to make a living from writing might feel a trifle peeved at this muscling into our territory (after all, we generally steer clear of performing open-heart surgery), the trend in medical memoirs is plainly a positive development. By drawing back the green curtains of the operating theatre and throwing open the doors to their consulting rooms, doctors are breaking an age-old taboo on airing difficult questions about death and disease, ageing and disability, and urging us to consider who lives and who dies, who benefits from a life-saving drug or technique and who should be denied it. As writers, doctors let the mask of clinical detachment fall to reveal human impulses of regret, hubris, anger and despair, to display their human fallibilities as well as their heroism. As readers, we, the normally passive patients, are forced to share responsibility for the decisions doctors usually take on our behalf.
The best of these books, such as neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s powerful memoir, Do No Harm, provide thought-provoking and humbling insights into a rarely glimpsed yet vitally important world. Gavin Francis’s book, Adventures in Human Being, therefore treads a well-worn and commendable path.
Francis has travelled widely and worked in some of