Seamus O’Mahony is a gastroenterologist who worked in the NHS for fourteen years before returning to practise for more than twenty years at University Hospital in his native Cork. His latest book was inspired by his long-standing scepticism about psychoanalysis and the discovery of a link between the surgeon Wilfred Trotter (‘the Sceptic’) and Sigmund Freud (‘the Guru’). This led to an exploration of the unlikely intersections of these two men’s lives, also taking in the role of a middleman, Ernest Jones (‘the Bagman’). He has constructed a rich, funny and at times sad story about blind faith, sexual obsession, hubris and the pursuit of fame and wealth.
When I began my neurological training at University College Hospital, the name Wilfred Trotter would come up from time to time. Trotter was born in the village of Coleford in Gloucestershire in 1872 into a Baptist family. He almost succumbed to pneumonia as a child and then contracted Pott disease (tuberculous caries of the spine), which confined him to bed for long periods of adolescence and left him with a hunchback. At the age of sixteen he was admitted to University College School, from where he went on to study medicine at University College Hospital. Despite his pathological shyness, introspective nature and mild disability, his exceptional abilities did not go unnoticed. Gifted with his hands, he was also a compassionate and attentive listener, something he put down to the insights he had gained from his own childhood invalidism. Trotter was soon appointed as surgical dresser to Sir Victor Horsley, the doyen of British brain surgery. Horsley was so impressed that within a few months he started to delegate even major surgical procedures to his young charge. In his spare time and in order to better understand the process of recovery after nerve injury, Trotter experimented by cutting several of his own peripheral and cutaneous nerves, risking his surgical career for the sake of science. When Horsley retired from the staff at University College Hospital, Trotter was appointed his successor and rapidly gained a reputation to rival that of his former teacher. In July 1929, he received a call from Buckingham Palace requesting him to operate on King George V. He was told that a car would be sent to collect him, an offer Trotter politely declined, saying that he preferred to take the bus. After he had removed a festering empyema from George V’s chest wall, he was appointed king’s surgeon, though he never accepted the baronetcy that came with the role. Trotter treated every patient he saw in the same way; rank counted for nothing and the esteem of scientists was the only honour he would accept.
Shortly after his obligatory retirement at the age of sixty-five, he was asked by Jones to give a second opinion on a cancer case at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead. After a careful examination of the patient, Sigmund Freud, Trotter was forced to tell him the bad news that his