Oldie Brainbox of the Year
Dr Henry Marsh
By Dr Theodore Dalrymple
Henry Marsh, now an oldie at 72, practised neurosurgery, the most prestigious but probably the most nerve-wracking of all medical specialties, for many years.
Neurosurgery entails what for most of us would be would be an intolerable burden of risk and responsibility; of no type of surgery is it more true that the surgeon should have the eye of a hawk, the heart of a lion and the hand of a lady.
In addition to his work in the NHS, Henry Marsh undertook teaching and operative work in far less favourable conditions in Ukraine and Nepal, where countless people, both doctors and patients, now owe so much to him.
All this would have been more than enough to have filled any average human life with achievement, but Henry Marsh has written a trilogy of books that inscribes him also in the roll of foremost authors of his day, all three books deservedly having been best-sellers.
In First Do No Harm, published to universal acclaim in 2014 and translated into many languages, he conveys to the reader, possibly better than any surgeon has ever done, the prolonged drama, tension, and anxiety of his work. It is as if we were making the life-and-death decisions with him and accompanying him into the very lion’s den of the operating theatre.
He continues the story in Admissions, published on 2017: the patients being admitted to hospital, and the surgeon admitting to his failures and failings. No doctor has ever been franker in public about his mistakes, mistakes in neurosurgery having the direst possible consequences. This bespeaks Henry Marsh’s great courage, for it is tempting for those with great responsibilities to hide behind a mask of infallibility.
In his last book, And Finally, Henry Marsh confronts with his hallmark honesty what must eventually confront us all, namely his own mortality. Diagnosed with advanced cancer of the prostate, whose symptoms he chose to ignore, doctors always being tempted to believe that illness is something that happens to others, he learns at the end of a long and active life what it is to be on the other side of the medical encounter, and wishes, for the sake of his own practice, that he had learned earlier in his career the lessons that it taught. By acknowledging it publicly, he helps others to learn.
No man deserves recognition more than Henry Marsh, surgeon, humanitarian and author.