Doctors with literary ambitions write memoirs, tell stories about patients, or educate us. Scottish physician Francis (Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, 2013, etc.) successfully combines all three.
In 18 chapters on 18 body parts, the author delivers no-nonsense lessons on anatomy and biology, each illustrated with a patient plus regular detours into medical history, medical scandal, and his own colorful life. “This book is a series of stories about the body in sickness and in health, in living and dying,” he writes at the beginning. A man appears with a nail through his palm or a wine bottle in his rectum. A depressive, immobile and silent for years, slowly begins to move and speak, more each day after a series of electroshocks to his brain. A couple undergoes the detailed unpleasantness of an infertility exam and then the even more detailed and unpleasant (and expensive) procedure for in vitro fertilization. Other chapters provide odd, penetrating insights—e.g., poets undergo open-heart surgery or breast cancer mastectomy and reveal the experience in verse. Even experienced doctors will perk up at some of the author’s digressions. One example: the Romans could not have crucified Jesus as traditionally described. Tissues in the palm are too fragile to support a man’s weight (the experiment has been done). Nails through the wrist would have worked. Many anecdotes are the bizarre sort that medical students employ to impress other people, and Francis portrays himself as a healer of almost supernatural compassion, but he has enjoyed a spectacularly varied career as a general practitioner, emergency room doctor, and volunteer in third world clinics and polar exploration. The result is plenty of good material, and he possesses the writing talent to bring it to life.
Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm remains this year’s medical memoir to beat, but Francis acquits himself well.