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

24510511In 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, leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh must make agonizing decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.

If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practiced by calm and detached doctors, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candor, Marsh reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets, and the moments of black humor that characterize a brain surgeon’s life.


You know you’ve read a lot of medical nonfiction when you think, “This is an alright book by a neurosurgeon discussing the intricacies of brain surgery, but I’ve read better.”  (For the record I like When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick Jr. more.)

Marsh hits all the expected beats and themes – surgery that goes well despite all odds, surgery that doesn’t go well despite all efforts, kids you don’t want to see die, adults who face death with dignity. The cases are engaging and the writing solid.

But I’m not sure I get along with Marsh as a person.  He’s nearing the end of his career, which is good in that we can see how hospital conditions and doctor training have changed over time.  These changes, though, are often framed in terms of the good ol’ days and how they compare with the bad ol’ now.  For example, an anesthetist refused to do a big surgery at 4 pm because she didn’t have childcare for the evening.

“But we can’t cancel it,” I protested.  “She was cancelled once already!”

“Well I’m not doing it.” …

For a few moments I was struck dumb. I thought of how until a few years ago a problem like this would never have arisen… I envy the way in which the generation who trained me could relieve the intense stress of their work by losing their temper, at times quite outrageously, without fear of being had up for bullying and harassment.

Oh, I’m sorry that asshole-ry is no longer tolerated.  Geesh.  This doesn’t take away from the amazing work Marsh has done in his life, including humanitarian work in rural Ukraine, but neurosurgeon as god thing turns me off.

In sum the book is good but there’s better out there – check out Vertosick’s first.

3 thoughts on “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

  1. Wow, this guy sounds like a real party to work with! I recently read a memoir by an anesthesiologist, Counting Backwards, and while he didn’t seem like the sort of jerk who would regret not being able to yell at his colleagues, he did seem a bit self-important. He had a lot of compassion for his patients though and his stories were fascinating, so it still made for a pretty enjoyable read. I think if I’d exclusively disliked him, it would have made it a lot harder to like his memoir.

    1. I wonder if it has something to do with the way doctors are trained – having to be in the top few percent in your chem class or applicant pool right through to getting into a competitive specialty or residency program. They’re constantly told, “you are here because you are one of the best”. On top of that you can quite literally hold someone’s heart or brain in your hands… seems like a recipe for everything from self-importance through arrogance. Glad to hear the Counting Backwards doctor has redeeming qualities! 😉

  2. Pingback: Nonfiction November Wrap-up – Always Doing

Comments are closed.