6 / 10
At first glance, a book dedicated to the subject of doctors who have gained fame in fields outside of medicine appears an intriguing, if somewhat obscure topic. Things become a little clearer upon the revelation that author Jim Leavesley is a distinguished Australian medical writer and Radio National regular.
They clarify further upon realising he spent 33 years practising as a GP before retiring and taking up his current pursuits. His previous titles include What Killed Jane Austen? and How Isaac Newton Lost His Marbles and More Medical Mysteries, Marvels and Mayhem. Who better to write a book about doctors who have gained renown in pursuits outside medicine than a doctor who has gained renown in pursuits outside medicine?
Not as much renown as some of the book’s subjects, mind: they include English cricketing great WG Grace, Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (the character of Holmes was based on yet another doctor). Nonetheless, Leavesley himself appears a man of distinction – well respected by his peers as a doctor of medicine and also a documenter of its history.
Not Your Ordinary Doctor bills itself as “A titillating collection filled with historical curiosities, fascinating whimsy” and stories that are “heroic and absurd, dazzling and ghoulish, inspired and tragic and, in the hands of master storyteller Jim Leavesley, never dull.”
Sadly, the synopsis couldn’t be further from the truth. Leavesley is far from a master storyteller and Not Your Ordinary Doctor is one of the dullest books I’ve read in years. It’s so dry that if you spent a month digging through it you’d never hit so much as a touch of condensation. As an academic reference, it’s great. As a historical resource, it delivers facts and accounts by the bathtub. But it’s just… so… boring… to… read. Almost every account of the 60-odd doctors throughout the book is delivered in the same robotic fashion.
“Subject was born in this village/city, to these parents, on roughly this date. Subject went to medical school in this location between these dates, before continuing further study somewhere else between another two dates. Insert anecdote here. After that, subject may or may not have pursued a medical career before doing something new, in the processing achieving this feat/becoming known for this pursuit. Repeat until subject died of insert affliction here.”
I’m sure Leavesley didn’t write his own synopsis, but I still feel cheated. To add to the frustration, when describing the work of 16th-century doctor-cum-author François Rabelais, Leavesley pompously declares, “They don’t write books like that nowadays: authors lack such fertile imaginations.” To dismiss the last hundred, 50, or even ten years of literature as lacking in imagination is ludicrous; it frames Leavesley as a curmudgeonly old man out of touch with modern writers of great fiction, from many of whom he could learn a lot about good storytelling.
Despite this, a number of genuinely intriguing characters and remarkable stories shine through the dull prose. One such is Peter Mark Roget. As a child he was so obsessed with making lists that it was considered a personality disorder. Roget went on to become a doctor and inventor, and created one of the greatest lists in history – the Thesaurus. The stories of the doctors and medical histories of Hitler, Stalin and King Charles II also make for great reading, at times being simultaneously saddening, hilarious and frightening.
Not Your Ordinary Doctor is by no means a bad book; it’s simply not what it claims to be. It sells itself as a quirky collection of entertaining oddities but inside lies bone-dry academic history. After slogging through its 340 pages I certainly feel educated, but not particularly entertained.
This review originally appeared on The Enthusiast at http://www.theenthusiast.com.au/archives/2011/review-not-your-ordinary-doctor-by-jim-leavesley/