Medawar Lecture: Henry Marsh CBE

Category: Academic, General, Speakers

Many of us were very much looking forward to the visit of Henry Marsh, and were keen to see if his personality matched that portrayed in his book, Do No Harm.

It's understandably difficult to appeal to an audience with such a variety of interests, as was the case on Tuesday evening. However, Mr Marsh included a wide range of fascinating concepts, so there was something for everyone. The idea that the decision-making process behind surgery is of far more importance than that the operating itself was a particularly prominent one, and was also a feature of his book. He was very explicit about the fact that sometimes it is just not worth even attempting to operate. For those who are operated upon, he made clear the importance of feeling empathy, or as he called it ‘rational compassion’, whilst finding the right balance between this and still being able to detach oneself from the patient to a sufficient level to make operating on them possible.

He spoke at length about the idea of consciousness and how challenging it is to understand how there is a physical explanation behind it. Tests on lobsters and Bonobo monkeys have appeared to support the idea that it is indeed a physical conception. Linked to this is the science behind the behaviour of psychopaths, something else that Mr Marsh touched upon. Brain scans suggest that these individuals are able to understand what others are going through to an unusual extent, but are unable to feel any emotion behind this, and thus they cannot empathise.

Mr Marsh also spoke briefly about some of his own experiences, including a few of his more significant operations and his unusual route into medicine. He emphasised how much easier it was to remember the operations that resulted in loss or damage than those which were successful. On a similar note, he mentioned how difficult it was to improve on the high level within his field at which he now finds himself. This is largely due to patients being unable to give feedback as they are either content with the surgery’s outcome, or not in a fit state to voice their criticism. Also, there are very few professionals with the level of expertise and experience that he has to correct him. 

A fascinating period of his time as a surgeon was that spent in Ukraine, helping to pioneer brain surgery in a region where, until then, it had been fairly non-existent. He mentioned the danger posed to him at this time, with the country in such a volatile state, and this makes the progress that he stimulated all the more significant.

Mr Marsh emphasised what a privilege it was for him to have spent his career working as a doctor and certainly inspired those of us who aspire to follow a similar route. Many of the concepts that he spoke about were intriguing and it was unquestionably a very engaging talk.

Harry MacColl (LI U6)
Sophia Hamilton-Russell (MM U6)
Phillip Springford (C3 U6)
Lottie Anning (PR U6)

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