A bicycling, bee-keeping, British neurosurgeon approaching the end of his professional career recalls some distinctive patients, surgical triumphs as well as notable failures, difficult decisions, and mistakes. Nearly thirty years of a busy neurosurgical practice are distilled into a collection of linked stories throbbing with drama - both the flamboyant kind and the softly simmering type.

Most chapters are titled after a medical condition (exceptions are "Hubris" and "Melodrama"). Some of the headings are familiar - Trauma, Infarct, Aneurysm, Meningioma. Other chapter titles flaunt delicious medical terminology that mingles the mysterious and the poetic with nomenclature such as Angor animi, Neurotmesis, Photopsia, and Anaesthesia dolorosa.

Included are riveting accounts of both mundane and seemingly miraculous patient outcomes. One success story involves a pregnant woman losing her sight due to a brain tumor that compresses the optic nerves. Her vision is restored with an operation performed by the author. Her baby is born healthy too. But tales of failure and loss - malignant glioblastomas that are invulnerable to any treatment, operative calamities including bleeding of the brain, paralysis, and stroke - are tragically common. The author describes his humanitarian work in the Ukraine. He admits his aggravation with hospital bureaucracy and is frequently frustrated by England's National Health Service.

Sometimes the shoe falls on the other foot, and the doctor learns what it is to be a patient. He suffers a retinal detachment. He falls down some stairs and fractures his leg. His mother succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. His three month old son requires surgery for a benign brain tumor.

As his career winds down, the author grows increasingly philosophical. He acknowledges his diminishing professional detachment, his fading fear of failure, and his less-hardened self. He becomes a sort of vessel for patients to empty their misery into. He is cognizant of the painful privilege it is to be a doctor.


The title of Do No Harm is spot-on. After all, this commandment is a crucial caution to all doctors. And for neurosurgeon Marsh, it signifies the restraint he must exercise in his medical decision-making. His approach to the doctor-patient relationship features a gentle medical paternalism that incorporates plenty of honesty and kindness. He writes about his struggle (and occasional clumsiness) with breaking bad news.

His professional life is portrayed as paradoxical - constant anxiety and contagious confidence, phases of futility and strings of inspiring operative accomplishments. The gift of forgiveness, how uncertainty tortures doctors, and the process of dying are significant topics for Marsh. In the last few decades, there has been a proliferation of medical memoirs. Do No Harm rises above them all. The book informs doctors that it's okay to be vulnerable and fallible, as long as they are also compassionate, truthful, and caring.

Primary Source

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


Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press

Place Published

New York



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