October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Eleanor Magson delves into the world of neuroanatomy in Henry Marsh's fantastic new book.

Do No HarmI’m a big fan of the brain. The three books I most recently read were about the brain (no, really). However, I hesitated for a while on purchasing Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the ancient Greek medic Hippocrates knows where this title comes from, and that is precisely what put me off. Despite dedicating nearly all of my undergrad Biomedical Science degree to neuroscience, my knowledge (and perceived interest) in the clinical side of neuroscience was woefully confined to Dr. McDreamy’s latest endeavours on Grey’s Anatomy.

But then I started to see huge posters of the book decorating tube stations, and I thought – okay, they’re advertising this neurosurgery book to the great masses, there must be something to it – and I added the book to my Amazon basket.

The book is fantastic. As mentioned, I’m quite well-read in the popular science arena, but this book stood out beyond just its shelf-mates as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is broken down into neat chapters each named after and centred on a surgery Marsh has carried out – most chapter names ending with the ominous, cancerous –oma (Oligodendroglioma, Haemangioma, Astrocytoma).

Chapters are concise, well-written and intriguing, and it’s easy to gobble up a handful in one sitting. Marsh, (who you might recognise from the acclaimed documentary The English Surgeon) writes honestly and humbly; it is clear why he is so trusted by his patients. His work in Ukraine, where he provided free surgery for those who could not afford it, is a contrast against the bureaucratic nightmare of the modern NHS (“I have lost count of the number of different passwords I now need to get my work done every day”). Marsh finds plenty of space to denounce such misgivings, but the matter-of-fact comparison against the situation in Ukraine dwarfs the problems in Marsh’s state-of-the-art London neurosurgical unit.

I imagine some of the descriptions of neurosurgery and brain anatomy might seem too detailed for some, but I found that although I already understood the terminology he used, Marsh’s descriptions of his surgical tools tunnelling through brain tissue gave a better neuroanatomy lesson than I ever received.

Sometimes coming across as a bit of a grumpy old man, and certainly not shy of telling stories that paint a less than perfect picture of himself, it becomes clear that this is all because of his desire to help as many people, as well and as quickly as possible. It seems unlikely, but reading about his backstory (a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Ethics), it appears that Marsh just fell into becoming a brilliant neurosurgeon, and now, into a brilliant writer. After reading this book, there is no-one I would rather have operate on my brain (and write about it afterwards).