Category Archives: books

Book Review – Madness and Memory

On the eve of AS exams, I have just finished reading ‘Madness and Memory’ by Stanley B. Prisoner, M.D. It is a book I found when researching for my EPQ and bought back in February, however because of its scientific content, it has taken me a while to get my head around and work through.

Despite this however, I have found it an incredibly interesting book, which appealed to both my love of science and medicine. It is written almost like a diary, a documentation of the events which led to the discovery of prions but explained for those without a science degree (definitely aiding my understanding a huge amount!) making it much more of an easy read.

To me this book highlighted the sheer amount of dedication which goes into research, not something I aspire to do but definitely something I respect. It reflects the skepticisms of new ideas and the rivalries between scientists in bucketloads – a perfect balance of drama and science. The transformation of an unconventional hypothesis – that of protein only (prion) diseases – into what I think is one of the greatest discoveries since the DNA double helix.

I would recommend this book to any budding medical professional or scientist not only because of the way it is written but largely down to its content. Prions are incredibly interesting diseases, and further discoveries could help unravel the unknown about brain diseases – mad cow, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s. The debate about the origins of such diseases is what I intend to focus my EPQ on, are they due to cannibalism, food supplements or BSE infected beef? This book has certainly succeeded in piquing my interest in the topic further, and I can’t wait to pick my research up again in a months time, after my exams.

The amazon link to ‘Madness and Memory’ is:

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

This book is undeniably honest, highlighting the realities of being a doctor, a patient, and dying. I am not embarrassed to say that I ended this book in tears, not only is it impeccably written but one of the most unique and useful books I have ever read.

“As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.”
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Becoming a doctor should not be viewed through rose tinted glasses, something I know I have previously written about (a phrase which has certainly stuck with me). The stresses, long hours and innumerable tasks which are encumbered within medicine are written about in ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, and most importantly the realisms of just wanting to get work done. Through reading this book, I learnt how easy it is to slip into monotony, to just ticking patients off a list, however, that is not what being a surgeon, let alone a doctor, is all about.


This has helped me realise that every patient who walks into a hospital is different, and that as a doctor you frequently meet people at their most vulnerable, most scared or most weak. How you approach a situation or initiate a conversation can impact hugely on how someone remembers their hospital experience or views hospitals for the rest of their life, and what can easily become just another patient in your day is a huge moment in a persons life. The humanity of being a doctor is truly emphasised within ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, with the personal stresses, commitment needed and responsibility felt being accentuated.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.” 
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Besides this, the second chapter of the book is as close to an account of death as possible. Dr Paul Kalanithi himself realised how as a doctor you deal with patients every day, but rarely do you experience what it is like, or the close proximity of death. I have not dealt with many loses in my life, and I think reading this book I got as close as possible to experiencing just a tiny part of what dealing with cancer can be like.

For me, being a doctor is a commitment to putting your patients first, and I believe that in many cases this is about making them feel comfortable, aware of what is happening but also recognising when not to bombard a patient with information. ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is both phenomenally written and a just balance between science, patient care and first hand experience. I would recommend it to anyone, as it is a huge insight into what life is like as a neurosurgeon, but also death and how hospitals can influence lives.

‘People often ask if it is a calling, and my answer is yes. You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, its the worst one there is’
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

Here is the amazon link for ‘When Breath Becomes AIr’


Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre [1]

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New Year, having found some time to relax. I’m sure, like me, many of you are heading back to school with mock exams looming (best of luck!!). As working for these exams has taken up far too much of my time recently and has been a stressful experience, I decided it was time to sit down with a good book and relax.

I picked up ‘Bad Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre (I will leave a link below), which has been sitting on my shelf since November, but I just didn’t have the time to start. I purchased it after a series of interesting biology discussion group (BDG) sessions, where we touched lightly on the profits pharmaceutical companies make and the incentives of drug companies, whilst discussing genetic modification and cryogenics ( the podcasts of which are also linked below). It is a book based on ‘how medicine is broken, and how we can fix it’ which highlights important flaws in current systems, particularly pharmaceutical companies, and how these can be mended. It is the book which prompted the question, ‘why aren’t all trial results publicly available?’ and a read I would recommend to anyone interested in medicine.

I plan to share my thoughts on what I’ve read, in stages, with you, and what I’ve learnt about the medical and pharmaceutical industries from this book. I feel like it will become something I feel passionately about, as the evidence medicine is based upon, becomes increasingly apparently flawed. The book itself is split into clear sections, with what can be described as ‘case study’ examples integrated along the way. The sections highlight the issues with missing data, where new drugs come from, bad regulators, bad trials, bigger simpler trials and marketing, alongside presenting ideas on how to improve and ‘fix’ these issues – from both the perspective of a patient and a doctor.

While so far I have only read the introduction, I’m really excited to delve further into the issues within modern medicine and our current system. To me, when people’s ill heath has become a business which can provide profit, many people have lost or disregarded the humanity of those patients. I think it is important we all help to find it again.

Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre – click here

BDG podcasts –  click here