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

Henry Marsh
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (166 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Mar 2014

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 gripping, 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.

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Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery + The Iceberg: A Memoir
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (13 Mar 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0297869876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297869870
  • Product Dimensions: 22.5 x 14.5 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (166 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Neurosurgery has met its Boswell in Henry Marsh. Painfully honest about the mistakes that can 'wreck' a brain, exquisitely attuned to the tense and transient bond between doctor and patient, and hilariously impatient of hospital management, Marsh draws us deep into medicine's most difficult art and lifts our spirits. It's a superb achievement. (Ian McEwan)

As gripping and engrossing as the best medical drama, only with the added piquancy of being entirely true, this compelling accoutn of what it's really like to be a brain surgeon will have you on the edge of your sunlounger (Sandra Parsons DAILY MAIL 'Summer Reading')

Marsh has written a book about a love affair, and one cannot help feeling similarly smitten ... 'Elegant, delicate, dangerous and full of profound meaning'. All four of those epithets might describe this book. (Ed Caesar THE SUNDAY TIMES)

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 ... At heart, this is a book about wisdom and experience. (Nicholas Blincoe THE DAILY TELEGRAPH)

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh... sets a new standard for telling it like it is... 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. We need his wisdom as a "roof" for future surgeons and a rein for public expectations. A good death, without surgery, is a very good outcome (Phil Hammond THE TIMES)

excellent... hugely compelling (William Leith THE SPECTATOR)

[Henry Marsh] has you on the edge of your seat... Henry Marsh's patients are living, individual people - he makes us feel we know them... 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. (Peter Lewis DAILY MAIL)

Marsh offers us a memoir of startling honesty... Marsh's frankness speaks of a reflective character who found an unconventional route to his career... Thirty years on he remains invigorated by the job - part Sherlock Holmes in diagnosis, part Action Man in theatre. At times he's positively gleeful, and we share his excitement as he puts us in his surgeon's shoes and guides us through the hidden topography of the brain (Ben Felsenburg THE MAIL ON SUNDAY)

Brain surgeons such as Henry Marsh, the author of this startling and moving memoir, have to live breathe, operate and make urgent decisions in full awareness of a terrible dilemma: if they open the skull they might save the patient's life, but a slip of the scalpel can cause appalling disability which, as Marsh puts it, can be much worse than death... It's this disarming candour that makes the book such an enthralling read... fascinating' (Gavin Francis THE GUARDIAN)

Do No Harm is in many respects a self-lacerating document: by and large, it contains stories not of triumph, or the author's skill and expertise, but of the emotional and psychological toll exacted when things go horribly wrong... His understanding of the nature of suffering is deep and personal. (Erica Wagner NEW STATESMAN)

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?... Well, thank God for Henry Marsh... One of the finest admissions to emerge in this phenomenal book is that of every surgeon's dilemma... what a bloody, splendid book: commas optional. (Euan Ferguson THE OBSERVER)

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgical consultant in a London teaching hospital, and his memoir, Do No Harm, offers an astonishing glimpse into this stressful career... The case histories are fascinating, but more importantly they are full of humanity. Marsh is the most honest author I've ever come across with regard to his own failings... This is a wonderful book, passionate and frank. If Marsh is even a tenth as good a neurosurgeon as he is a writer, I'd let him open my skull any time. (Leyla Sanai THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY)

This is a deeply compassionate account of a professional life spent on the edge, a job which has huge highs and appalling lows... Henry Marsh is a world-class neurosurgeon but he is also a great storyteller... This is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary man. (Dr Michael Mosley FOCUS)

Henry Marsh's unflinchingly honest and profoundly moving memoir... illuminates the life-and-death decisions neurosurgeons wrestle with daily, the intricate marvels of the brain's anatomy, the joys and scourges of technological advances, the frustrations of working in a cash-starved NHS and all the conflicting emotions these struggles evoke... Marsh conveys his awe of the human body with literary flair... courageous and inspirational (Wendy Moore LITERARY REVIEW)

I found this book a fascinating read and commend it. As far as I can discover, this is the first account of life by a surgeon working in today's health service (Harold Ellis, Guy's, King's and St Thomas' School of Biomedical Sciences, London BRITISH JOURNAL OF HOSPITAL MEDICINE)

An excellent book... Marsh is clearly an extraordinarily nice individual... It is a wonderful read, essential for anyone curious about what it's really like to be a surgeon (Jaffe and Neale Bookshop & Cafe

Do No Harm is [Marsh's] restless, unflinching memoir on the pain and exhilaration of his profession. It's told with searing candour... The lean, unadorned prose Marsh deploys to describe these every day details matches his soul-baring honesty... The book's daunting tenor is frequently punctuated by Marsh's scathingly black humour... It is unprecedented for a neurosurgeon to prise open their profession with such uncompromising frankness. Marsh's achievement is to humanise the complexities of neurosurgery by fearlessly exposing his own frailties (Brendan Daly SUNDAY BUSINESS POST (Ireland))

Elegantly written and heart-searingly truthful (Jacqueline Wilson THE MAIL ON SUNDAY)

[Marsh] does brain and spinal cord surgery and a daily basis, and this account of his working life gives an extraordinary insight into his own thought processes as well as into the world of neurosurgical briefing meetings and hospital politics. Each chapter's starting point is a real-life case study, and the book conveys both an explorer's fascination with the human brain and the contradictory emotional demands of dispassionate observation and compassion required of a brain surgeon. (GOOD BOOK GUIDE)

When a book opens like this: "I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing" - you can't let it go, you have to read on, don't you? ... I trust completely the skills of those who practise [brain surgery], and tend to forget the human element, which is failures, misunderstandings, mistakes, luck and bad luck, but also the non-professional, everyday life that they have. DO NO HARM by Henry Marsh reveals all of this, in the midst of life-threatening situations, and that's one reason to read it; true honesty in an unexpected place. But there are plenty of others. (Karl Ove Knausgaard FINANCIAL TIMES)

Book Description

An astonishingly candid insight into the life and work of a modern neurosurgeon - its triumphs and disasters.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
83 of 83 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I graduated from St. George’s Hospital Medical School in 1991 and well remember doing a neurosurgical attachment at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital in Wimbledon, where Mr. Marsh was a consultant before the hospital moved to the St. George’s site. I found the experience horrifying and the visions of people lying in rows of beds on the old Nightingale wards, shattered psychologically, physically and neurologically, reminiscent of a field hospital at Sevastopol, has stayed with me. This outstanding book is somehow reassuring to me because it shows that the existential awfulness of neurosurgical illnesses and treatments is not lost on all neurosurgeons and Mr. Marsh gives us a page-turning series of vignettes which get to the heart of what it is to be a neurosurgeon (and by extension a doctor of any kind) dealing with these kinds of conditions.

Although they are experienced in sharpest relief day in and day out in neurosurgery, this book teases out the dilemmas facing all doctors who deal with life and death illnesses. It is clear that the author’s experience prior to medical school as a geriatric nurse, teacher in Africa and Oxford student of PPE has furnished him with the literary tools and perspective to be able to portray these impossible situations in an eloquent fashion and he brings us uncomfortably close to the anxiety, doubt and equivocation which must affect anyone doing this job who has an ounce of sensitivity.

Lest this sound too much like a hagiography, it must be stated that although he comes across as a man of great compassion and sensitivity, the book reveals Mr. Marsh to have more than a few elements of the old school, irascible, patrician consultant surgeon about him.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I couldn't put it down! 15 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having worked as a theatre nurse with several neurosugeons I always found brains, brain surgeons and their work fascinating. Mr Marsh manages to paint a picture in the readers mind of the patients, the hospital staff and his reasons for choosing his line of work, I wont go into more detail in case of spoilers. I read an extract in The Times and couldn't wait to get my hands on the book. It arrived yesterday and by the evening I'd finished it. I had to keep reading to find out what would happen next to Henry and his patients. He's an excellent storyteller with a fascinating and varied CV and obviously cares deeply for his patients. By the end of the book I was Googling about a career in neurosurgery and wanting to work with him!
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars really fascinating read 16 Mar 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As a friend of someone going through a neurological diagnosis I found this book to be both harrowing and hopeful. It have me an insight into what goes on as we as friends and family patiently wait.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A suberb memoir of a leading neurosurgeon 25 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s leading neurosurgeons, and has been the subject of two award-winning TV programmes. His background is unconventional, having done a series of rather menial jobs, and taken a degree in PPE at Oxford, before starting medical training and eventually deciding to specialise in neurosurgery. Now nearing retirement, he has written this superb, compelling book about what it means to be a surgeon working in a field where every day one is required to make agonizing decisions, and where even a minor error can have catastrophic life-changing consequences for the patient.

Many of the short chapters describe specific cases, from the initial consultation, through to the diagnosis, then the operation, and finally the outcome. The descriptions of the operations are given in ‘real time’ and are riveting. One can almost see the surgeon cutting his way through the brain to reach the offending material and share his elation when the operation is successful; but also his anxiety when he encounters something unexpected, and his dismay when things go wrong. Marsh does not prevaricate when this happens and honestly admits that he has made many mistakes over his long career that have ruined the lives of his patients. One such error eventually cost the insurers £6M. This openness is rare in the culture of today’s NHS. These accounts are interwoven with personal details about his own life: for example, the fears he experienced when other members of own family have become ill, the moving description of the final days of his mother, and his long-term charity work in Ukraine.

Marsh is obviously ‘old school’, irascible and hierarchical, having little sympathy with NHS managers and other apparatchiks, and their political masters. Doubtless he has made enemies.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing account 27 May 2014
By foxmum
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What a book! I stayed up nearly all night. I simply couldn't close it. An amazing, heartfelt account of an intelligent and compassionate surgeon. A view you won't get anywhere else. It made me completely reassess how I think about myself and my own mind. This is a must read. An absolute tour do force!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a startlingly honest and philosophical read 6 Aug 2014
By hattie
(Read my full review at
I very highly recommend this book. It is an honest autobiography from a man who deals with major ethical dilemmas everyday. Henry Marsh gives accounts of some his surgical successes as well as some of his nightmarish experiences. The nature of neuroscience means that the book is not only interesting in the way it teaches you the surface of neuroscience and its terminology but it also has strong philosophical themes, pointing to the mind/brain problem( dualism vs physicalism debate). Marsh discusses what our sense of self is, in terms of ‘the electrochemical chatter of billions of nerve cells’ and also discusses the phenomenon of pain and consciousness.

Each chapter is a different case or point in Marshes’ life and they are not in chronological order. Rather, they are linked in the themes that each chapter evokes and discusses. Therefore it is a book that you can pick up here and then and read a few chapters at a time. Nevertheless, it is definitely a page turner, with dramatic and interesting stories on every page; from dramatic hospital procedures, to operations in Ukraine and to his mother’s death, which is a beautiful, beautiful part of the book.

If you’d like to read a more in depth analysis of the book then please follow this link to my review on my wordpress blog.
Thanks, Hattie

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Well written. Honest Incisive. Sad
Published 2 hours ago by Mrs S I Lester
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating book told with brutal honesty
A very accessible account of the human side of neurosurgery. I had the privilege of meeting Henry Marsh as a patient with what I now know - having read the book - was comparatively... Read more
Published 4 days ago by Peter Harvey
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful early chapters
once started, i could not put this down.
wonderful early chapters, gets a little tired towards the end.
bought a second copy.
Published 4 days ago by Spedding Fox
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
its a great book
Published 5 days ago by Mr. M. G. Galloway
5.0 out of 5 stars liked the guy who wrote it
Hard to read given my mother's unsuccessful surgery....but wanted some answers....I felt it gave me an understanding as to why they went ahead in the first place... Read more
Published 6 days ago by jackie r
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 8 days ago by mj goodrich
5.0 out of 5 stars Unimprovable
A wonderful,compassionate book.Unimprovable.
Published 8 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating insight into brain surgery, and full of human interest....
I am not a medical person, but I found this book a fascinating and touching insight into the world of brain surgeons. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Mc Adams
4.0 out of 5 stars Doctor Yes
The title of the book tells you exactly what the book is going to contain, 'stories of life, death ........'. Read more
Published 10 days ago by Claire Dylan
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Henry Marsh is an exceptionally bright man ,and its shows.Doyen of British Neurosurgery.
Published 14 days ago by ashutosh
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