Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

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My review of Henry Marsh’s absorbing memoir appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine (chopped to bits by the subs, as usual). Here’s an excerpt, with the cuts restored:

Early in his career, Marsh pioneered the “awake craniotomy,” a procedure for removing tumours in which the patient is kept conscious as the surgeon tests the brain matter, separating cancerous growth from healthy brain. His description of this procedure is riveting: “All you can see, as you look into the patient’s brain with the microscope, is the brain’s white matter, which is like a smooth, thick jelly. It is usually – but not always – slightly darker than normal because of the presence of tumour within it.” Meanwhile, Marsh asks the patient: “Do you want to see your brain?” If they say yes, he tells them: “You are now one of the few people in the history of the human race who have seen their own brain!”

During his four decades as a neurosurgeon, Marsh has seen and done things that vanishingly few human beings will ever see or do. He has opened up the sealed space of the skull and probed living tissue with his “ultrasonic aspirator” – a “sucker with an ultrasonic tip that emulsifies what you are operating on.” His perspective on certain large philosophical questions is therefore unique. He is a convinced materialist, scoffing at mystical (or dualist) notions of the self: “I”, he writes, “am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information […] When my brain dies, “I” will die.” 


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