Book ReviewsBritish authorsCosta prizeNon fiction

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmPeople who tend to be squeamish or prefer not to know about the internal workings of the human body, wouldn’t enjoy reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It’s also probably best to avoid this book if you have a friend or relative who has been diagnosed with a neurological condition or is about to have surgery.

Marsh is a neurological surgeon with more than 30 years experience. In Do No Harm he offers insight into the joy and despair of a career dedicated to one of the most complex systems in the body. This is a candid account of how it feels to drill into someone’s skull, navigate through a myriad of nerves that control memory, reason, speech and imagination and suck out abnormal growths. If successful he can save someone’s life or extend their projected life span. But often he is millimetres away from catastrophe. One false move and the result could be death or paralysis.

Marsh frankly admits that in his career he has made mistakes. A few years ago, he prepared a lecture called “All My Worst Mistakes.” For months, he lay awake in the mornings, remembering the patients he had failed. “The more I thought about the past,” he recalls , “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond.”

On a visit to a nursing home for people with extensive brain damage he sees the result of some of those mistakes in the motionless forms of patients in their beds “To my dismay I recognised at least five of the names.” One of them is a schoolteacher in his fifties whose life he ‘wrecked’ (Marsh’s word) during a fifteen hour operation to remove a large tumour. In the final stages he tore part of the artery that keeps the brainstem, and thus the rest of the brain alive. The patient remained in a coma for the rest of his life. The experience haunted Marsh for years.

Yet without mistakes, he says, there would be no progress. And without the willingness of doctors to take risks, many of the greatest advances in his field would never have happened.

It’s one of the painful truths about neurosurgery that you only get good at doing the really difficult cases if you get lots of practice but act means making lots of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you’ve got to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on…

Henry MarshDoes that mean surgery is always the best course? This is a question discussed regularly in the daily case conferences Marsh holds with the junior doctors and radiographers who form his hospital team. Is it kinder to let someone die gradually than to undertake invasive surgery from which they may never recover or if they do, face life changing side effects? The team reach a clinical, unemotional conclusion but its down to Marsh to face the patient and explain the decision. It’s an encounter that requires a delicate balance of compassion and detachment.

Marsh suffers anxiety before such meetings, trying to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic about the likely outcome of any procedure. Often before surgery he is oppressed by “almost a feeling of doom’ and panic which only dissipates at the last moment when he sits in his operating chair and takes up his scalpel.

… full of surgical self-confidence, I press it precisely through the patients scalp. As the blood rises from the wound the thrill of the chase takes over and I feel in control of what is happening.

Marsh never set out to become a neurosurgeon. After completing his medical degree he caught a glimpse through a porthole of a patient “anaesthetized, her head completely shaven, sitting bolt upright on a special operating table.” The surgeon stood behind her, with a light fixed to his head, patting her bare scalp with dark brown iodine antiseptic. The image stayed in his mind, and struck him as “a scene from a horror film.”

But his second visit to a neurological theatre fascinated him. Unlike all the other operations he had witnessed which involved the handling of ‘warm and slippery body parts’, this was done with an operating microscope through a small opening in the side of the head using only a few microscopic instruments.

The brain continues to fascinate Marsh. He is awed by what he sees through his surgical microscope, which “leans out over the patient’s head like an inquisitive, thoughtful crane ” as the infra-red cameras in his GPS system shows he position of his instruments. The internal cerebral veins are like “the great arches of a cathedral roof” and beyond the Great Vein of Galen can be seen “dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.”

In Do No Harm he does a grand job of sharing that wonder with his readers and also the drama of the operating theatre. You don’t need extensive biological or medical knowledge to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in these procedures though a schematic showing what bits of the brain lie where would have been a useful addition to the book.

Every chapter is headed with the name of a type of tumour (who knew there were so many?) in which Marsh talks about some of the cases that involved those conditions. In between he shares his many battles with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies he encounters in the British National Health Service (NHS).

Surgeons kept waiting because of a decree that doctors can’t begin a new operation while another is in the final stages in an adjoining theatre. Or theatre staff forced to kick their heels because their next patient wasn’t allowed to change into their hospital gown while there were members of another gender in the same waiting room. The working hours of junior doctors changed without any consultation with the surgical leads. Computer systems that won’t co-operate when a bed is needed quickly. The causes of Marsh’s frustration range far and wide.

In one episode, which would be farcical in any other sector, he describes having to leave his clinic to repeatedly go up two flights of stairs to get a password so he can discuss an X-Ray result with his patient. “Try Mr Johnston’s,” he’s told. “That usually works. He hates computers. The password is ‘Fuck Off 45’.” It marks the forty-five months since the introduction of a highly-expensive computer system.

Back in his office, Marsh tries every possible combination of upper and lower case letters, adding spaces, taking them out, all without success. He runs up the two flights again. One staff member realises there’s been a miscalculation. The system has been in place two months longer than they recalled. So it turns out the password is now “Fuck Off 47.” All of this while the poor patient waits to hear if Marsh can save his life by operating to remove the cause of his elliptic fits.

His railings stem from a deep concern for his patients and a desire to want to do right by them (he even washes and dries the hair of his female patients before they leave the theatre). He tries not to let his feelings show but his mask slips regularly. Leaving the hospital one evening having told one man that an operation was not possible, he rails against the traffic as if it were the drivers’ fault

“ … that this good and noble man should die and leave his wife a widow and his young children fatherless. I shouted and cried and stupidly hit the steering wheel with my fists. And I felt shame, not at my failure to save his life — his treatment had been as good as it could be — but at my loss of professional detachment and what felt like the vulgarity of my distress compared to his composure and his family’s suffering, to which I could only bear impotent witness.

This is a book that I never expected to enjoy but it proved far more readable than I expected. I’m glad however that I didn’t read it before my friend had her own surgery to remove a brain tumour (from which she thankfully recovered). I appreciated there were risks involved, but never realised just how narrow the margin of error would be. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing.


About the Book: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2014.  It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, the Wellcome Book Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Marsh wrote a follow up in 2017. Admissions  was written as he prepared for his retirement.

About the Author: Henry Marsh worked as consultant neurosurgeon in London for about thirty years. In addition he travelled regularly to the Ukraine, donating his time to treat patients in extremely difficult situations and in the face of political opposition. H retired from full time work in the NHS in 2015 but continued to work in private practice until 2017.

Why I read this book: This was a book club choice. I probably wouldn’t have read the book otherwise. But I am so glad I did.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

28 thoughts on “Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

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  • I loved this book and I highly recommend ‘Admissions’ – they are both such interesting and eye-opening accounts of what it’s like to work in the NHS.

    • I did see an extract from Admissions in one of the Sunday newspaper supplements last year and thought it sounded interesting. Might need to wait a while before I wade deep in blood again though

  • I think the descriptions of blood and slippery bits would turn me off, but it’s not often that a neurosurgeon let’s us into his/her life. Lately, the trend in books is towards morgue memoirs 😱

  • I’m totally squeamish, so not for me. However, OH is keen on operations (he was present at 2 of my 3 caesarians) so he would probablylove it…. =:o

  • Great review. This is exactly the kind of non-fiction I like.

  • He’s a great writer, and has written a second memoir, called Admissions, which I found excellent. I’ve also heard, though, that he was (he’s now retired) incredibly difficult to deal with as a colleague. Some of the things that he says in Admissions also make me think he must have been a fairly tricky character – surgeons aren’t stereotyped as arrogant demi-gods for nothing…

  • This does sound fascinating and brilliantly honest, though I would probably be a bit too squeamish to read it. Great review, and thanks goodness for surgeons like him.

    • Wish all surgeons had his level of empathy with patients….

  • I’d like to read this. Henry Marsh sounds a remarkable person, compassionate and honest.

    • He is indeed remarkable Margaret. Though he also sounds like a very difficult person to work with -quite demanding!

  • No, unlike Lisa and Guy, I’d be in for this one! After all I read Jim Crace’s novel Being dead twice! Seriously though, I don’t shy from confronting material – except where it is gratuitous, as in genre novels and films. I don’t like violence etc for its own sake. But, this sounds absolutely fascinating.

    A couple of years before blogging I read the memoir of a surgeon Mohamed Khadra, titled Making the cut. It was a wonderful book about his becoming a surgeon, his early career and the decisions he’s made. He teaches as well as practices medicine, and he incorporates poetry into his classes because he says surgeons need to understand humanity and who better knows humanity than poets. Each chapter in the book starts with an excerpt from a poem. Your book, however, seems to go even further than he does into the murky waters.

    • The Khadra book sounds rather good too. There seem to have been a few medical memoirs coming out recently – another one that sounds good is about a woman who specialises in end of life care.

  • Uh, not for me, I think!
    But I do love the bit about the passwords. I had a not dissimilar system myself when I was at work, until they changed it so that you could not have anything that was remotely like what you’d had before. From then on, we all wrote down our passwords and left them where we could find them, which completely defeated the purpose of those super-safe password systems.

    • If only every site had the same basic rules about passwords it would be a bit easier. But no, some want minimum 8 letters, others require a capital letter and others want symbols. etc. A few years ago I hit on a way of having unique passwords which I could remember. It involves using he first letter of the website and then following it with the same formula each time. So if it’s the Guardian site for example, the password would begin with g . If it was hodder and stoughton, it would start with h. Thereafter you use our own sequence. It works about 80% of the time for me

  • My gosh, this all sounds horrific!! Will try to stay away from brain surgery 🙂

    • the truly horrific part was where I discovered that in certain kinds of brain operation you are just given a local anaesthetic – in other words you are awake and talking to the surgical team. Its a way of testing that they are not impacting the area of the brain involved in speech.

        • I know what you mean. My toes want to curl up every time I think about it

  • Peter Brown

    Your review and more precisely the subject matter is the subject of a poem by Dannie Abse called ‘In the theatre’ – particularly if you listen to it read by Abse; plenty on-line as he’s recorded it several times, the best recording is his earliest in October 1996 and on a now hard to find cassette called ‘Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh poetry’ read by Abse and Siân James.

    • Abse, now that’s a name I haven’t heard for quite some time..


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