It would appear that many people love ‘clinical writing’, a distinct genre that embraces doctors, diseases and patients. As a medic I tend to avoid this territory. Stories about medical practice lean either to the sententious (e.g. A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel) or the facetious (Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House), while the current big sellers favour medical heroics in war zones or harrowing tales from that other front-line of combat, the NHS. Also, I don’t much care for the doctors who appear in novels. Who would employ Dr Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic young physician in Middlemarch, whose professional ambitions are so easily thwarted by the pretty, but shallow, Rosamund Vincy? And what about Dr Zhivago? Poet, lover and counter-revolutionary but, let’s face it, not much of a physician.
Having said all that, and invoking the exception that proves the rule, I am a fan of one medical book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, which was written by a splendid Victorian surgeon called Frederick Treves. Published in 1923, the year Treves died, it is a series of vignettes about curious patients and his surgical practice during the last decades of the nineteenth century. It includes, of course, the remarkable story of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and how Treves rescued this terribly deformed man and helped him to health and happiness. But there are eleven other wonderful stories in this volume, the whole collection forming a gloriously odd anthology of medical Victoriana.
In the 1880s Treves was a surgeon working at the London Hospital in Whitechapel (now the Royal London Hospital) and specializing in the new field of abdominal surgery which, at the time, was moving from being universally lethal to just highly dangerous. In 1888 he performed the first appendectomy in England and was thereafter in demand as the country’s leading abdominal surgeon. His surgical skill was needed in June 1902 when K
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