Biography & Memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on April 2nd, 2014


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

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Blurb: What is it like to be a brain surgeon? How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason? How do you live with the consequences of performing a potentially life-saving operation when it all goes wrong? In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to ‘do no harm’ holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, Henry Marsh must make agonising decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty. If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practised by calm and detached surgeons, this griping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candour, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humour that characterise a brain surgeon’s life. DO NO HARM is an unforgettable insight into the countless human dramas that take place in a busy modern hospital. Above all, it is a lesson in the need for hope when faced with life’s most difficult decisions.

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014)

Life and death at his fingertips: watching a brain surgeon at work | New Statesman

Euan Ferguson, The Observer 

“Why has no one ever written a book like this before? It simply tells the stories, with great tenderness, insight and self-doubt, of a phenomenal neurosurgeon who has been at the height of his specialism for decades and now has chosen, with retirement looming, to write an honest book. Why haven’t more surgeons written books, especially of this prosaic beauty?… [A] phenomenal book … splendid”

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Peter Lewis, Daily Mail 

“It is not exactly encouraging on page 30 to find this top brain surgeon shouting at his theatre team in mid-operation: ‘What the f*** do I do now?’ – and throwing his instruments to the floor. Not encouraging, but it does give you a piquant taste of a searingly frank book which tells the story of a danger-fraught occupation the way it is. Every chapter is a tightrope walk with the risk of death or horrifying disfigurement for the rest of the patient’s life… Doctors seldom talk to us as frankly and freely as Mr Marsh. In the select band of those who take on this daily dance with high anxiety he must, I think, be a great man.”

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William Leith, The Spectator 

“Excellent… this, in a way, is about a man having an affair; the thing is, he’s having an affair with brain surgery. Like an amour fou, it always contains danger and mystery — things go wrong suddenly, and he doesn’t know why, and the only cure is to do more brain surgery.”

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Phil Hammond, The Times 

“Marsh has become more cautious and reflective with age, and at times seems to miss the “have a go” hero he once was. This book may be a catharsis, and at times reads like a one-man truth and reconciliation hearing. His love for brain surgery and his patients shines through, but the specialty shrouded in secrecy and mystique when he entered it has now firmly had the rug pulled out from under it. We should thank Henry Marsh for that.”

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Ed Caesar, The Sunday Times 

Arrestingly candid… For its many hair-raising moments, there are aspects of this book which don’t quite work. The chapters are structured around particular medical problems, or procedures — they are called Aneurysm, Leucotomy, and so on — and the narrative can sometimes feel like a series of interesting but unconnected episodes. You also wish that Marsh had found a way to expand upon how his personal and professional lives have bled into each other. However, these are minor annoyances. Marsh has written a book about a love affair, and one cannot help feeling similarly smitten.”

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Nicholas Blincoe, The Telegraph 

Do No Harm is an elegant series of meditations at the closing of a long career. Many of the stories are moving enough to raise tears: a good few would make a Dalek squeamish… At heart, this is a book about wisdom and experience.”

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