Do No Harm – Henry Marsh: A Review

Date finished: November 6th 2016

The to-be-read pile is out of control. I think it’s breeding. On top of every shelf of neatly-ordered novels is a pile of skew-whiff, unorganised books, tormenting me with the fact I’ve failed to read them. Next to the bulging bookcase is a box of old university textbooks, and some of the teen fantasy I’ve been meaning to part with, as well as a pile of old kids encyclopedias and the like which need to find their way to the attic or a charity shop or anywhere that’s not in an untidy pile in my bedroom.

One of the tormentors was Do No Harm, which has been sitting untouched for well over a year now (the gold medal for neglected tomes goes to Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works, which has been gathering dust for 3 or 4 years now. I imagine it hates me). I was struggling with what to read next but knew I wanted something quick and gripping. I didn’t know if Henry Marsh’s account of his years as a neurosurgeon would fit those criteria.

Spoiler: It does.

Do No Harm is a gripping and informative account of the day-to-day operations a brain surgeon must deal with. At turns humane and blackly funny, Marsh establishes an authoritative voice with which to recount the selected highlights of his prestigious career as one of the top surgeon’s in his field.


Each chapter is named after a particular brain disorder, and sees Marsh dealing with life-threatening diseases as familiar as aneurysms and as daunting as oligodendroglioma. Marsh guides us expertly through the brain and the problems that can be encountered whilst drip-feeding us an insight to the more personal aspects of the job, from the elation of successful surgery against the odds, to the less fortunate occasions.

Marsh’s reverence for the brain and passion for his job are obvious, and he manages to walk the fine line between emotionally-available and professionally detached in describing the numerous cases from his lengthy career. Every account of surgery feels like a nail-biting thriller, whilst the smattering of angry diatribes about management and red tape are frequently hilarious but often worrying too. Through Marsh’s retinas (when they’re not threatening to detach) it’s easy to spot the slow death that cuts and bureaucracy are inflicting upon the NHS.

For a book that’s ostensibly about different neurosurgical procedures, Do No Harm manages to be extraordinarily versatile, charting the trajectory of Marsh’s career, his experiences on the receiving end of the scalpel, and the lessons he’s learned from both professional and personal experience. Indeed, Marsh’s raw honesty in recounting personal episodes involving medicine manages to directly influence his professional writing, lending him authenticity that someone without his background couldn’t possibly hope to emulate.

A surgeon’s task, Marsh repeatedly states, is to strike a balance between giving the patient hope and being realistic. It becomes a sort of mantra which comes to apply to the book itself. Marsh’s stories navigate the minutiae of neurosurgery and the medical history that accompanies a distinguished career with tenderness, passion, anger and optimism. But the work never loses it’s realism: it won’t shy away from the tragedies, the mistakes, the depression, the pessimism, the bureaucracy and everything else that comes with such a risky occupation. It strikes the balance perfectly, and is a very valuable and beautiful book as a result.


Similar: Being Mortal – Atul Gawande; Adventures in Human Being – Gavin Francis


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