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Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery Hardcover – 13 Mar 2014

4.8 out of 5 stars 1,198 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (13 Mar. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297869876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297869870
  • Product Dimensions: 14.5 x 2.6 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,198 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 143,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 account 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')

Do No Harm is a difficult book to read, not formally or technically - Marsh has a fluid, informal style - but because of the sheer sense of exposure. Puns aside, neurosurgery is at the cutting edge of what it means to be, not only a doctor with limited power to cure or palliate, but to be human ... The simple idea that doctors themselves are of the same flesh and blood as their patients, a fact often forgotten on both sides of the relationship, is at the core of ... Do No Harm (Seamus Sweeney TLS)

A mesmerising, at times painful journey through a neurosurgeon's extraordinary career. As delicate as he can be brutal, Marsh's account of himself if always honest and moving. Human frailty at its strongest. (Jessie Burton, author of THE MINIATURIST)

This is a beautifully written, humane, moving and darkly funny memoir by a senior consultant neuro-surgeon at St George's Hospital, Tooting... I was fascinated by this frank view of life on the other side of the anaesthetic mist. It takes us deep into both the human brain and the entrails of the NHS, and it is sometimes hard to know which is the more alarming (Patrick Marnham THE SPECTATOR Books of the Year)

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 Knaussgard FINANCIAL TIMES)

I really liked Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It's a book about being a brain surgeon. But it's also one of the best books I've ever read about how obsession works. At the start Marsh says: 'I often cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing.' He hates doing it but feels compelled to do it. It hurts his marriage. It's like a book about a man having an affair - with brain surgery (William Leith THE SPECTATOR Books of the Year)

An elegant series of meditations at the closing of a long career. Many of the stories are moving enough to raise tears, but at the heart this is a book about wisdom and experience (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH)

A fascinating look inside the head of a man whose job it is to fiddle around in ours. He acknowledges that surgeons are arrogant, that they play God, but that they are also afflicted by despair, sorrow and doubt. He is scathing on NHS bureaucracy and his picture of doctors doing their best but basically flailing in the dark made me respect the profession more (Nick Curtis EVENING STANDARD)

Easily the most enthralling book of 2014, it is also scathing, searing and sensitive, proving that Marsh is as skilful with the written word as he is with the scalpel (Helen Davies THE SUNDAY TIMES 'Memoir of the Year')

Candid and elegantly written (Carl Wilkinson FINANCIAL TIMES 'Books of the Year')

An honest, humble and occasionally dramatic account... [Marsh] comes across as a reflective and sensitive man, intensely involved in his work and clearly needing to think and write about the ethical aspects of what he does (Francis Phillips CATHOLIC HERALD)

Fascinating insight into what it's like to play God, and Marsh is unflinchingly honest, near uncomfortably so on occasion about the highs and low that unfurl when holding not just another human being's life, but their very consciousness, in his hands (Lucy Scholes THE INDEPENDENT 'Books of the Year')

This is a beautifully written, humane, moving and darkly funny memoir... it takes us deep into both the human brain and the entrails of the NHS, and it is sometimes hard to know which is the more alarming (THE SPECTATOR 'Books of the Year')

Dreamy and daring, many stories are moving enough to raise tears, and a select few would make even a Dalek squeamish (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH)

An astonishing memoir, a searingly honest book from a senior doctor that offers intense insights into life and death. With candour and compassion, Marsh draws readers into agonising decisions over delicate, microscopic surgery that he compares with bomb disposal work, such are the catastrophic consequences of mistakes. A brilliant and unforgettable work, it fully deserves all the praise... an extraordinary work raises issues of profound political and societal importance that are the legacy of an aging society, twisted attitudes to disability and the skills of those such as the author. More politicians should follow the Prime Minister's lead by reading this book; some might even be spurred into challenging a debate suffering severe paralysis. "Do no harm" is a good mantra for politicians as well as physicians (Ian Birrell THE INDEPENDENT)

What readers and critics have warmed to so much in Marsh's account of life as a neurosurgeon isn't just the details of crucial operations, but his disarming honesty about his "failures", ... simply because he is human (Lesley McDowell SUNDAY HERALD)

A strikingly honest and humane account of what it means to hold the power of life and death in your hands...The book is elegant, edifying and necessary. (Erica Wagner NEW STATESMAN 'Books of the Year')

There can seldom have been a more candid account of a life's-worth of dangerous surgery... Henry Marsh spares us nothing of his experiences in the theatre... this unique and gripping story of a hero of the operating theater (Peter Lewis DAILY MAIL 'Best Biographies and Memoirs 2014')

Marsh has nothing to hide...He tries not to extinguish hope when there is barely any, and not to be forced to operate when the outlook is futile. He does not always succeed and the astonishing openness of his confessions is moving. (Phil Hammond THE TIMES)

An enthralling, moving memoir about the massive pressures of a brain surgeon's life (THE OBSERVER)

What he captures superbly is the obsessive nature of his job. (EVENING STANDARD)

Henry Marsh has clearly enjoyed the satisfaction of the technical skill involved in removing the rumour, and restoring the sick. (GOOD BOOK GUIDE)

Expert, humble and profoundly human (THE TELEGRAPH 'Books Review of 2014')

A nerve-jangling and scarily honest dissection of life as a neurosurgeon. Full of compassion for his patients, Marsh captures the catastrophic risk of the slightest slip of the scalpel (Charlotte Heathcote EXPRESS.CO.UK)

This is a brilliantly told account of a career as a neurological consultant that illustrates the intricacies of surgery and the complexities of making life and death decisions on a daily basis. Marsh - who wrote it as he was approaching retirement - has a gift for storytelling as he vividly talks us through past operations and gives an animated account of cutting into heads and sucking away pieces of tumours. His appreciation of his human fallibility, along with the numerous scary moments when procedures go wrong and surgical instruments fail, make this an admirable, educational and thrilling read (Julia Richardson DAILY MAIL)

A vivid, impatient, rigorously detailed book about his life as a brain surgeon. He's candid about surgical catastrophe, outraged by the NHS's culture of managerialism, tender in the face of his patients' distress and stoicism (Helen Dunmore THE OBSERVER 'Best Books of 2014')

In this autopsy of an obsession, Henry Marsh seeks to explain how he hates cutting into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and music but just can't stop himself. So elegantly written it is little wonder some say that in Mr Marsh neurosurgery has found its Boswell (THE ECONOMIST 'Books of the Year')

Breathtaking. The title is ironic: Marsh, uncharacteristically for a medical man, reveals that the traditional and estimable doctors' oath to "do no harm" is an unachievable counsel of perfection - certainly in his field - and he writes accessibly for non-scientists (Sheena McDonald HERALD SCOTLAND 'Books of the Year')

No amount of squeamishness could dim the power of Henry Marsh's Do No Harm, a remarkable account of what it feels like to be a neurosurgeon. Marsh - one Britain's most distinguished brain surgeons - admits that he was drawn to his field by its "controlled, altruistic, violence". Told in a series of vignettes, his memoir is a similar mix of hot and cold, from the seemingly chilly detachment needed to shield himself from the terrible consequences of inevitable mistakes, to barely concealed rage at increasing managerialism in the NHS. This wonderfully humane and unsentimental piece of writing reveals a writer who wields the pen as effectively as the scalpel (Adrian Turpin, Director of the Wigtown Book Festival HERALD SCOTLAND 'Books of the Year')

A thrilling, often terrifying, strangely funny memoir by a neurosurgeon about the lives he has saved, and the lives he has irrevocably wrecked - a poignant, thoughtful exploration of the fragility of human life and intellect, and the frailty and miracles of medicine (Julie Cohen HUFFINGTON POST 'Authors Pick the Best Books of 2014')

Marsh's descriptions of the practice of surgery (he likens its intricacy to bomb disposal) are poetic and addictive. He is pleasing if grouchy company, ultimately appearing superhuman even as he sets out to demystify the job (Paul Laity THE GUARDIAN 'Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2014')

Incredibly absorbing... an astonishingly candid insight (Bill Bryson, Wellcome Book Prize judge)

If someone is going to saw your head open, just hope it is the eminent neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who writes powerfully here of his own experiences... he comes across as a man of deep insight and great compassion. Indeed, some of the most moving passages in the bookare when he comes face to face with his 'mistakes'. Quite brilliant (Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT)

Brain surgeon Henry Marsh's memoir is an honest, sometimes alarming and always compelling account of his working life and the difficulties doctors face (WOMAN & HOME)

'Riveting ... extraordinarily intimate, compassionate and sometimes frightening ... [Marsh] writes with uncommon power and frankness. And while his book may unsettle readers ... it will at the same time leave them with a searing appreciation of the wonders of the human body, and gratitude that there are surgeons like Dr Marsh using their hard-won expertise to save and repair lives' (NEW YORK TIMES)

'This is one of the most compelling and life-affirming books to have been published all year. Henry Marsh is a top brain surgeon and, it turns out, an exquisite writer. Taking us from what it's like to feel someone's brain in your hands to the experience of telling a loved one what is going on in a patient's psyche, it lets us in on both the physical mysteries and the emotional complexities of brain surgery. It reads like a thriller rather than a text book and it's an extraordinary look at what makes us human.' (Alexandra Heminsley THE DEBRIEF)

An arrestingly candid memoir by a consultant surgeon that explores with bracing honesty the view from the other end of the knife (THE SUNDAY TIMES '100 Biographies to Love')

This book is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping read through the trials and tribulations of the author Henry Marsh's career as a brain surgeon ... It brought me to tears to think of how lonely the life of a brain surgeon can be... Students, nurses doctors, pick this book up and enjoy the ride! (NURSING TIMES)

Beautifully written, recklessly honest and morally complex. Marsh writes superbly about the intricacies of the human body, about the sometimes conflicting impulses of professional ambition and human need, and about the difficulty of talking honestly to patients and their families in times of medical crisis. These 'Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery' present a compelling argument about the moral dimension of surgical intervention and build to a touching and rueful self-portrait (Peter Parker, PEN ACKERLEY PRIZE 2015 chair of the judges)

A compelling, refreshing and honest read about the certainties of youth taken over by the regrets and doubts of old age, NHS bureaucracy and a passion for brain surgery... Hope is what shines through in this book. That, and a man's compassion and continued love affair with brain surgery (NURSING STANDARD)

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

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a junior neurosurgical trainee this book has been an unexpected delight. It has provided another entity to help contextualise my future learning before I become a more senior neurosurgical trainee and in time a consultant neurosurgeon. Having heard Mr. Marsh speak at conferences, once standing on a bar top in Bratislava at a Eurpoean neurosurgical meeting, it is all too easy to form an impression that he comes from a line of privilege and that neurosurgery was almost pre-ordained. But indeed on reading this book it wasn't and that is what makes this book even more special. His humility is incredible in this book (although this is easy to say as a junior neurosurgical trainee that has not worked under him and therefore this observation is through a book from a distance).

There are too many parts to this book to compose a proper review in a mere few lines. But the overwhelming triumph in this book is that he is retiring and can therefore blast out loud his distaste for how things go. This is not isolated to him but sadly reflects a good number of senior trainees and junior colleagues, e.g. him almost getting a ticket during a certain scenario is ludicrous and the rampant hospital policies that management think safeguard patients act enormously to smash out morale that actually puts patients at risk. I once asked a prominent MP in 2004 if the brain drain in science and engineering could affect doctors and the NHS. He proudly declared no as doctors in Britain are committed to the NHS. Well at one point one third of my social circle of doctors left Britain and most are not coming back.

On a more inspirational note his constant desire to seek out Ukraine, to help colleagues out there to ultimately help people has acted in concert to other books, e.g.
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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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