Review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry


My bookshelves are piled high with brand new books, fiction and non-fiction, so much so that I really truly do not need to buy a book again until mid 2020. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot borrow books? Right? Two days after I vowed to read my huge medicine TBR list, I just happened to walk out of my local library with ‘The Way of All Flesh’, the BRAND NEW debut novel by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym for husband and wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. To be honest with you, all it took was two phrases, new anaesthesia and 19th century medicine to change my mind.

Edinburgh, 1847. Will Raven starts his apprenticeship with Dr Simpson, a renowned surgeon specialising in midwifery and obstetrics. He soon gets pulled into not only the world of midwifery, but Simpson’s quest to find a reliable and safe form of anaesthesia. However, Raven, along with housemaid Sarah also find themselves investigating the brutal murders of young women in the city. How did they die, who killed them and for what purpose?

Carefully entwined within the gory and unsettling are a plethora of medical themes, all explored with both enthusiasm and historical accuracy. 19th century Edinburgh was one of Britain’s hubs of medical teaching and discovery – its prominence coincided with the emergence of the 19th century medical marketplace, which in effect offered consumers a wide variety of medical options. Therefore throughout the novel, the reader learns of the advantages and disadvantages of quackery, homeopathic and hydropathic medicine and of course, the quest for a safer and painless surgical procedure via anaesthesia. Personally, the amalgamation of all aspects of 19th century medical history in one novel focused on the advancement of medicine, pleased me most whilst reading. As medical historians, we are often taught one epoch in history per week/module – Parry’s work brought all our knowledge together into a tangible demonstration of 19th century medical life.

Saying that, you do not need one jot of medical history knowledge to enjoy this novel. As Will Raven is an apprentice, the reader learns what he learns. The principles and methods of surgery, anaesthesia and midwifery are as new to Will as they are to the reader – Raven explains these principles through his experiences. These experiences can be as simple as a short conversation between Raven and Dr. Simpson, a room full of Drs trialling new forms of anaesthetic, or a live surgical procedure performed theatrically. The reader witnesses these events through the eyes of a new, fresh Dr, ready and willing to learn.

If you want a good book that transports you back to the 19th century, whilst not even leaving your house, The Way of All Flesh is definitely for you. Easy to read, historically accurate and gripping until the very last page – believe me, I devoured the last 50 pages at a rate of knots due to all the twists and turns – Ambrose Parry’s debut novel showcases the best and worst of 19th century medical advancement and practice. Do you think the library will mind if I keep this forever? On loan of course!


Review: Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold


100 years ago, a Spanish Lady visited Europe, America, Africa and beyond. Seemingly swift, she travelled overnight infecting towns, villages, states and countries with influenza. In her latest work, Pandemic 1918, Catherine Arnold explores the trajectory of the illness, its impact on those who survived and died, and the present race to isolate and analyse the strain that caused the pandemic before another emerges.

At face value, Pandemic 1918, comes across as an exploration of the macabre, yet by the end of the flu’s journey, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of emotion that seeped from every primary account used. Arnold teased out panic, shock, denial, elation and curiosity from personal accounts, newspaper articles and images, in order to create a human representation of the Spanish flu’s impact on individuals, communities, institutions and ultimately the world. Coupled with statistics and facts relating to the spread of influenza and its impact on population, I felt the true scale of the pandemic and its impact.

I also enjoyed – perhaps a strong word considering the subject matter – the chronological approach to the flu’s story. Whilst in recent years thematic approaches have been utilised, Arnold chose the style that worked for the story she needed to tell. A chronological approach allowed for a clear and methodical look into 1918’s Spanish flu misery. As a reader, I gained so much from following events from beginning to end, something that would have been incredibly tricky to do had the book been organised thematically.  This chronological approach also gives Pandemic 1918 an alternative audience – one that is not dominated by medical historians, healthcare professionals and students. The simplicity of its structure allows absolutely anyone interested in the Spanish flu access to unprecedented information. The need for #accessibleacademics is on the rise, and Catherine Arnold is certainly one such historian.

Similarly, but by no means less importantly, Arnold weaves past experiences of the Spanish flu into present medical research – research that dictates global, medical and humanitarian responses to another flu pandemic. She asks whether the world as it is now would be able to cope with another pandemic of the same or larger scale as in 1918? How far is research going toensure our safe futures? What can we learn from the events of 1918? As much as I would love to answer these questions for you all, I think its best if you go and pick yourselves up a copy of Pandemic 1918, by Catherine Arnold. With more emotion and plot than a Sunday Times Fiction Bestseller, you’ll need to remind yourself regularly that these events did actually happen, and could happen again.


Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo


Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo chronicles the lives of Yejide and Akin, a married couple struggling to come to terms with infertility and child mortality against the backdrop of a politically charged 1980s Nigeria.

Whilst reading Stay With Me, I was impressed by the historical accuracy of the novel. Yejide and Akin cannot have children. Yet once they have children, via unconventional means, their first two children suffer from Sickle Cell Disease.  Sickle Cell Disease did, throughout Africa in the late twentieth century, affect many children. For example, a study by A. F. Fleming ( of the Garki District in Nigeria during the 1970s, found that of the 534 newborns in the district, 2.1% had Sickle Cell Disease – 92% died.[1] Children aged between 1 and 4, of which 0.4% of 259 were affected, were expected to live no more than 5 years.[2] The death of Yejide’s first two children, Olamide and Sesan, at the hands of Sickle Cell Disease is an accurate representation of the true cost of Sickle Cell Disease in Nigeria. Multiple children from the same family died from the disease in the 1970s and 1980s.  However, Rotimi, Yejide’s third child, survives her Sickle Cell diagnosis and lives. But why? She is, for one, a symbol of hope at the end of the novel, a way for Adebyo to satisfy the reader’s appetite for a happy ending (of sorts). Yet Rotimi’s survival is also a reflection of falling mortality rates as the twentieth century drew to a close. New medical knowledge led to better treatment and condition management options. Rotimi symbolises this.

Ayobami Adebayo’s emphasis on healthcare and the importance of good health in relationships is shown through Akin and Yejide’s use of both orthodox and unorthodox medical practices in order to address their fertility problems. Whilst Akin seeks infertility help from a specialist infertility hospital in Lagos, Yejide takes a more traditional path, opting to visit a man atop a mountain and takes part in his fertility ceremony. Both treatments are unsuccessful, regardless of their orthodox and unorthodox status. These unsuccessful treatments are therefore an interesting insight into the real power of medicine: sometimes no amount of medical help from whichever option an individual chooses can help some conditions. Parallels can be made here with contemporary medical issues, such as IVF treatment and private medical care. Despite the money paid for treatment, successful procedures are not guaranteed.

Perhaps Ayobami Adebayo’s greatest success with this novel is her ability to combine human emotion with medical themes, in order to tell an intense story that doesn’t hide away from real life. Family members, neighbours and acquaintances are all affected by Yejide and Akin’s infertility problems – medicine and health are widely spoken about and debated topics in the community.

Stay With Me is a fantastic novel addressing infertility, medical practices and relationships in 1980s Nigeria. Infertility and Sickle Cell Disease are dealt with delicately, whilst retaining the realities of explosive emotions associated with health problems. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel marries emotion and medicine together beautifully.




[1] S. D. Grosse (et. al), ‘Sickle Cell Disease in Africa: A Neglected Cause of Early Childhood Mortality’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41:6, (2011).

[2] Ibid.



Review: ‘The Butchering Art’ by Lindsey Fitzharris

Uk front cover of The Butchering Art – taken from

‘The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine’ by Lindsey Fitzharris was an odd book to place so highly on my Christmas list. Nonetheless, Santa delivered and my days between Christmas and New Year were spent entirely in 19th century hospitals, operating theatres and lecture halls. Focusing on Dr Joseph Lister and his implementation of surgical and hospital sanitation against the backdrop of ingrained, grisly practices, Fitzharris’ debut brilliantly captures the influence of Lister’s research and his long journey towards its acceptance amongst his medical peers.

Unlike some academic studies, The Butchering Art successfully captures the everyday reader with its story-like prose, whilst still satisfying the medical historian’s want of in-depth analysis of Lister’s experiments and surgical career. Yet the sheer gory nature of the operations performed and wounds inflicted upon 19th century patients added an extra layer to the story. I think both amateur and professional medical historians can agree, there is no such thing as too much gore – a opinion which Fitzharris seems to agree with!

Lister received significant opposition to his development of antiseptics, mainly due to its precise nature, and the inability of fellow surgeons to implement antiseptic procedures properly. Instead of solely focusing on Lister’s scientific work, Fitzharris has made the wise decision to contextualise Lister’s work within the framework of the 19th century medical profession, and society itself. Without the accompanying remarks on medical school status, the life of everyday men and women, and contemporary medical practices, Lister’s discoveries could have been in danger of looking irrelevant – just as they did to his medical contemporaries.

I would certainly recommend The Butchering Art to anyone interested in Joseph Lister, the introduction of antiseptic into hospitals, and indeed 19th century medical advancements and medical professionals. Medical history students should take particular note of this monograph, due to its brilliant context and engaging account of a important medical figure; The Butchering Art is a fascinating introduction to 19th century medicine.