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Doctor On The Brain

BOOK: Doctor On The Brain
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Doctor On The Brain


First published in 1972

© Richard Gordon; House of Stratus 1972-2012


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.


The right of Richard Gordon to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.


This edition published in 2012 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.


Typeset by House of Stratus.


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.




This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.

About the Author


Richard Gordon
, real name Dr. Gordon Stanley Ostlere, was born in England on 15 September 1921. He is best-known for his hilarious ‘Doctor’ books. Himself a qualified doctor, he worked as an anaesthetist at the famous St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (where he was also a medical student) and later as a ship’s surgeon, before leaving medical practice in 1952 to take up writing full time. Many of his books are based on his own true experiences in the medical profession and are all told with the wry wit and candid humour that have become his hallmark.

In all, there are eighteen titles in the
Series, with further comic writings in another seven volumes, including
‘Great Medical Disasters’
‘Great Medical Mysteries’
, plus more serious works concerning the lives of medical practitioners.

He has also published several technical books under his own name, mainly concerned with anaesthetics for both students and patients. Additionally, he has written on gardening, fishing and cricket and was also a regular contributor to
magazine. His
‘Private Lives’
series, taking in
Dr. Crippen, Jack the Ripper
Florence Nightingale
, has been widely acclaimed.

The enormous success of
Doctor in the House
, first published in the 1950’s, startled its author. It was written whilst he was a surgeon aboard a cargo ship, prior to a spell as an academic anaesthetist at Oxford. His only previous literary experience had been confined to work as an assistant editor of the
British Medical Journal
. There was, perhaps, a foretaste of things to come whilst working on the
as the then editor, finding Gordon somewhat jokey, put him in charge of the obituaries!

The film of
Doctor in the House
uniquely recovered its production costs whilst still showing at the cinema in London’s West End where it had been premiered. This endeared him to the powerful Rank Organisation who made eight films altogether of his works, which were followed by a then record-breaking TV series, and further stage productions.

Richard Gordon’s books have been translated into twenty languages.

He married a doctor and they had four children, two of whom became house surgeons. He now lives in London.


At eight o’clock on a June morning of gauzy London sunshine, the dean of St Swithin’s Hospital settled at his study desk, clicked down his ballpoint, and with an expression of intense solemnity started to write.


The tragic death yesterday of Sir Lancelot Spratt FRCS, senior surgeon at St Swithin’s, leaves a gap which is only too obvious.


The dean frowned. No, that didn’t seem right at all. And it wasn’t every day a man found himself writing for the columns of the country’s top newspaper. He stared for some time in thought through the open first-floor window of his new home, across a small walled back garden lively with blue delphiniums, pink and yellow lupins and scarlet salvias, towards the exuberantly variegated buildings of St Swithin’s itself. Abruptly slashing out the lines, he started again.


The tragic death yesterday of Sir Lancelot Spratt FRCS, senior surgeon at St Swithin’s, removes a highly colourful figure from not only the operating theatre but the theatre of life.


Much better! the dean decided. Quite literary, in fact. With more confidence he continued:


Sir Lancelot’s rumbustious personality endeared him to many, though admittedly his close colleagues at St Swithin’s sometimes found it trying. His dominating mannerisms, such as hurling surgical instruments – once, an amputated leg! – at nurses and students, were unfortunately not restricted to the operating table. He was always liable to be somewhat rough-tongued. Indeed, downright bad-tempered. One could even go so far as calling him outrageously pig-headed. Not to mention aggravatingly self-centred and quite painfully self-opinionated. Oh, yes, he had a sense of humour – or so he claimed. But it was the humour of the schoolroom, I should have said the lower fourth –


‘Oh, damn!’ The dean ripped the paper in two.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum
and all that rubbish, I suppose. Though I really don’t see why a man’s kicking the bucket should oblige his friends to turn themselves into a bunch of hypocrites.’

The door opened, and he was interrupted by his wife appearing with a tray. ‘There you are, Lionel! I wondered where on earth you’d got to. I’ve brought up your second cup of coffee, as you just disappeared from breakfast like a flash.’

‘I thought I’d better get on with Sir Lancelot’s obituary notice straight away.’

‘Oh!’ She too assumed a befittingly reverent look. ‘It must be an unhappy task.’

‘Unhappy? It’s utterly impossible! How can anyone draw a reasonably accurate pen-picture of Lancelot without seeming insulting to his memory? You might try writing a history of Jack the Ripper while delicately avoiding the subject of homicide.’

‘Couldn’t you concentrate on his nicer qualities?’

‘I can’t think of any offhand.’

‘Let me see… “He was an accomplished after-dinner speaker”?’

‘Rubbish. He only had one joke, and I had to hear it about five hundred times.’

‘“He was a charming and generous host”?’

The dean snorted into his coffee. He was a short, gnome-like man with a pointed bald head, who sat bouncing gently in his chair – his habit during the flashes of exasperation from the explosive little storms which blew so regularly through his life.

‘Why, it was only last month he gave that delightful party for the students’ union ball, which we all enjoyed so much,’ the dean’s wife said.

didn’t enjoy it. I happen particularly to dislike the students’ union ball. They all become far too familiar and expect me to pay for their drinks. I should have avoided it altogether this year, had Muriel not been president of the union.’

‘It really is awfully difficult to think of Lancelot as “the late”. All our married life I’ve always regarded him as completely indestructible, like the Himalayas.’

The dean gave a sigh. ‘It comes to us all, I suppose, Josephine. However much one tries to suppress it, this sort of task does give one a distinctly chilly feeling up and down the spine.’

‘But it’s Lancelot’s obituary, dear, not your own.’

‘Nevertheless, it brings home rather forcefully that all men are mortal and medical science is on occasion inclined to be somewhat unreliable.’ He fluttered a hand. ‘“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee… The paths of glory lead but to the grave…
Ars longa, vita brevis
…” All that sort of thing, you know.’

‘But Lionel, darling!’ Josephine was a tall, good-looking, dark-haired, kind-hearted woman, whose soft grey eyes now filmed over with compassion. ‘You’re still a comparatively young man.’

‘I’m a deal older than you.’ The dean took off his large round glasses and polished them vigorously. ‘You were really so young when we married, Josephine – in those days, quite a child-bride. Now of course girls seem to start raising families between sitting their O-level papers. I suppose it’s because they get more meat in their diet, or something.’

Standing behind his chair, she looped her arms gently across his shoulders. ‘Promise me you won’t entertain any more of those gloomy thoughts?’

‘But it’s difficult, my dear. I must admit, that for some time now I’ve had feelings of…well, the utter pointlessness of life. Its complete futility. Surely you must have noticed something about me?’

‘I put it down to your old rheumatism playing up.’

‘Why are we here? What is our use? From the neonatal cry to the death-rattle?’

‘Lionel – !’

‘We are but leaves which fall in autumn, to be tidied up and turned into smoke drifting hopefully in the direction of Heaven.’

‘Lionel! You’re upsetting me.’

‘Life goes on like an alarm-clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…then suddenly dingalingalingalingaling.’

‘Lionel! This lovely morning, too.’ He leant back on the comforting elasticity of her substantial bosom. ‘But quite apart from being a physician, and doing so much good for people, you’ve led such a successful life.’

‘Perhaps that’s the trouble? By middle-age I’ve achieved my ambitions. Every single one. That’s the Devil’s own punishment for an able man.’

‘Aren’t you proud of your new knighthood?’

‘It only opens another hole in your pocket,’ he said churlishly. ‘Everyone seems to imagine that because you’ve got a title you’re rolling in it. Anyway, there suddenly seem to be knights everywhere, as thick on the ground as traffic wardens. I remember it was just the same when I qualified. The entire world suddenly seemed populated exclusively with doctors. Odd. Anyway, this came in the morning post. It might possibly provide me with some fresh interest in life.’

He reached for a letter on crested House of Commons paper. Josephine read it over his shoulder.


Dear Lionel,

Can I possibly buy you lunch one day very soon? Today, if you like. A matter of great importance and urgency has arisen in one of my committees. I think you might very well be interested.

As ever,



‘That sounds promising, dear. Perhaps the chairmanship of a royal commission?’

‘Knowing Frankie, more like the chairmanship of a local political garden party. But I’ll get my secretary to phone.’ He dropped the letter back on his desk. ‘It’s always fun to see old Frankie again.’

His wife removed her arms, he thought a shade abruptly. ‘If you ask me, you’re only getting these quite unjustified feelings of uselessness because our two children have grown up and are leaving home.’

‘Ah! A delightful feminine over-simplification. Though I must say it’s strange to think of young George as married, and living in Sweden – and God knows what the pair of them are getting up to, judging by the Swedish film posters plastered all over London. And now Muriel’s almost a qualified doctor…’

The dean’s eye softened as it fell on their elder child’s photograph beside the pad of lined foolscap on his desk. His daughter Muriel took after her mother, but the dark hair was drawn back severely to display an intellectual brow, the full lips, which could look as inviting as fresh strawberries, were set in an austere line, and the soft, dreamy eyes seemed to be studying some fascinating rash on the nose of the photographer. ‘I suppose we must be grateful she’s turned out such a level-headed, serious-minded girl. Not like some of these sex-mad flibbertigibbets you find among the female students these days – even in St Swithin’s, I’m ashamed to say. I do so hope she wins the gold medal in clinical medicine.’ His tone was heartfelt. ‘It’s just bad luck she’s got such opposition this year. Young Sharpewhistle, you know. The man’s perfectly abnormal. An intellectual freak. His brains quite frighten me, sometimes, in the wards.’ The dean busily clicked his ballpoint several times. ‘Well, my dear, I must get on. Before I go to the hospital I must get Sir Lancelot sewn up, as it were. What are you doing this morning?’

‘Monday’s my day for physiotherapy.’

‘I was forgetting. I hope that girl in St Swithin’s is doing you good? Thank heavens I never let Lancelot succeed in looking at that back of yours! He’d have had a dirty great slit down it in no time at all. Absolute sadists, these surgeons. I suppose that’s what drives them to take up such an abnormal occupation at all.’

Once alone, the dean warmed to his task. With the help of
Who’s Who
and the
he rapidly covered four of the foolscap pages, which he read through with a satisfaction approaching smugness. It really was awfully good, he decided. And who knows? he wondered, slipping the paper into an envelope. The editor might be sufficiently impressed to invite him to contribute future articles on a somewhat less specialized topic. For a substantial fee, of course. Envelope in hand, the dean hurried downstairs. He collected his hat and briefcase in the narrow hallway. He called a goodbye to his wife. He opened his front door and stepped into the morning sunshine.

The front door led down a short flight of steps directly on to the pavement. The dean lived in No 2 Lazar Row, the middle of three newly-built joined together three-storey houses which occupied a short cul-de-sac against the walls of the hospital itself. To his left as he emerged, the door of No 3 was ajar. Its householder stood on the front step, a bundle of letters in his hand, sniffing the air while gathering his morning post. He was almost fully dressed, with formal striped trousers, a white shirt and a St Swithin’s tie, though wearing instead of a jacket a scarlet silk dressing-gown decorated with large, fearsome golden dragons.

‘Morning, Lancelot,’ called the dean cheerfully. ‘Charming day.’

Sir Lancelot Spratt grunted.

‘I’ll be seeing you in the hospital at lunch?’


The dean braced his shoulders. ‘I must say, I feel I’ve done one good day’s work already. A splendid feeling to start the week. Eh?’

‘I should myself much prefer to be spending the morning watching cricket at Lord’s.’

‘Then why not?’ urged the dean. ‘Why not play truant? We must snatch our pleasures while we can. Who knows? You may be taken from us this very afternoon.’

‘That eventuality was not foremost in my plans for the day.’

‘Well, I must be off. There’s always a lot of medical school business to get through before my ward round. So convenient, isn’t it, being able to stroll from one’s home to one’s work? I honestly don’t know how I put up with that dreadful West End traffic for so long, when we lived near Harley Street. Quite the shrewdest thing I ever did in my life, moving here next door to you.’ Sir Lancelot glared. The dean tipped up his chin and took a deep breath. The warm sunshine and the knowledge of the paper in his pocket had momentarily melted his inner gloom. ‘A morning like this, Lancelot – doesn’t it make you feel glad that you’re alive?’

‘I have no idea how I should feel were I experiencing the alternative.’

‘I mean, doesn’t it fill you with
joie de vivre
? Make you think life’s worth living? After all, our time is short–’

Sir Lancelot had shut the door.

The dean hurried away with a thoughtful frown. Really, the fellow’s becoming surlier than ever, he decided. He had known Sir Lancelot since he had himself been a house physician and Sir Lancelot the St Swithin’s resident surgical officer. He had long ago discovered – or as the dean would himself have put it, had bitterly suffered – all the surgeon’s idiosyncrasies. But over the past four weeks, since about the time of the students’ union May ball, a distinct change for the worse had come over his neighbour. He had seemed more withdrawn, the dean felt. Preoccupied with something. Nervous, ready to jump at a sudden sound, quite unlike his usual unshakable self.

He remembered how Sir Lancelot’s eye, when you were talking to him, sometimes wandered as though searching for someone who wasn’t there. Very sinister. Once the dean had overheard him talking to himself in his garden, extremely loudly. Premature senility, the dean thought sombrely. Softening of the brain. After all those years of self-indulgence, Sir Lancelot’s arteries must be so hardened it was a wonder he didn’t crackle when he moved. The dean’s bouncy step turned through the hospital gates into the main courtyard. It was sad, but…well, he had been prudent, writing that obituary the very morning the editor’s letter requesting it had arrived.

Sir Lancelot too had a first-floor study overlooking the walled rear garden, which had a tiny close-cropped lawn, orderly pink and white rose bushes, and variously coloured stocks arranged as neatly as chocolates in a box. He stood in the middle of the study floor, still in his dressing-gown, reading the first of his letters through half-moon glasses. He slowly stroked his beard for some moments in thought. He raised his thick gingery eyebrows. He reached his decision. With a sigh he sat at his desk, which was separated from the dean’s by only a few inches of brickwork.

‘I suppose one has one’s duty. Even if it is sometimes a depressing and possibly a painful one.’ Sir Lancelot uncapped his fountain-pen and reached for a pad of lined foolscap. ‘Might as well get on with it here and now, I suppose.’

In bold, flowing hand Sir Lancelot began:


BOOK: Doctor On The Brain
6.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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