Kate Womersley

How much does Britain still ‘love’ the NHS?

‘Of course I support the NHS. Everybody supports the NHS, or says they do,’ poked the comedian Frankie Boyle in one of the many campaigns promoting the health service. To admit you don’t believe in this national institution is as taboo as not caring about Britishness, about goodness, about people. The public is keen to

Great men don’t shape history – but tiny microbes do

On Tuesday afternoons, pathology teaching at medical school required me to peer down a microscope for two hours, screwing my inactive eye ever more tightly shut as if that would make the looking eye suddenly see clearly. Each eosin-stained slide with its pink and purple lines and splodges of diseased cells was as legible to

The danger of learning too much from Covid

When Ray Bradbury was asked if his dystopian vision in Fahrenheit 451 would become a reality, he replied: ‘I don’t try to predict the future. All I want to do is prevent it.’ In the hot embers of the Covid-19 pandemic, it may not be enough to foresee infectious disease threats if we lack the

TB is back with a vengeance

If you were a teenager before 2005, one reminder of tuberculosis in British life is that small circular scar on your bicep. Maybe you’ve explained to your children why it’s there, if you ever knew. The BCG is no longer a routine vaccination in the UK, a revision which signalled to many that TB was

Rationality is like a muscle that needs constant flexing

In the 1964 film My Fair Lady after Colonel Pickering has secured the help of an old friend to pull strings at the Home Office (plus ça change) in the hope of finding the absconded Eliza Doolittle, Professor Higgins snaps: Why is thinking something women never do? And why is logic never even tried? Straightening

The history of transplants had many false starts

On watching transplant surgery, I can give prosaic but essential advice: have a good breakfast. Each operation can last 12 hours, and you’re unlikely to get a seat. Relocating a liver that was recently inside someone else is a feat of preparation, choreography and collaboration (with the patient too, who must agree to alcoholic abstinence).

Why did no one diagnose my sister’s TB?

In 2016, Arifa Akbar’s elder sister, Fauzia, died suddenly in the Royal Free Hospital, London at the age of 45. Until the last hours of her life, the cause of her coughing, chest pain, night sweats and breathlessness had eluded a series of baffled experts. But you do not need a medical degree to hazard

The skeleton is key to solving past mysteries

One hot summer’s morning, as a nine-year-old girl living on the rim of a Scottish loch in the hotel owned by her parents, Sue Black was unaware she was about to ‘leave those days of innocence behind’. A man delivering groceries sexually assaulted her. Many years later, Black imagines how this unspeakable childhood trauma might

All skin and bones

Nobody warns you when you start medical school that your career decisions have only just begun. Up to a decade of recruitment pitches follow: have you thought about becoming a haematologist? Leave the ward for the drama of theatre! If you don’t like patients, try radiology. A recent flush of popular medical non-fiction lets the

Murder will out

When the 24-year-old Angela Gallop started working at the Home Office forensic science service, her boss lost no time in telling her that ‘a woman’s place is in the home — literally, at the kitchen sink’. Many years later, having contributed to solving some of the UK’s highest profile criminal cases, Gallop may have remembered

Who’s aping whom?

For a practical at medical school on the subject of the nervous system, it was thought unwise to wire students up to a live electrical circuit, so we used worms instead. The task was to measure lumbricus terrestris’s giant neurons as they fired. My worm’s bruise-coloured rings concertinaed in a final effort to escape before

Outpourings of the heart

The numbers invite awe: three billion beats in a lifetime; 100,000 miles of vessels. But on the hospital floor, wonder is often in short supply. Doctors forget how intimate their examinations and investigations can be. Stethoscope to chest. Order a blood test. I remember on a morning ward round at medical school, our consultant wanted

The burden of freedom

It’s 1830, and among the sugar cane of Faith Plantation in Barbados, suicide seems like the only way out. Decapitations and burnings are performed with languorous cruelty. Women give birth and are sent straight back to work after lying their ‘tender-skinned newborns down in the furrows to wail against the hot sun’. Esi Edugyan’s third

Unlucky in love

‘The most interesting novels are a bit strange,’ Kirsty Gunn once told readers of the London Review of Books. ‘They reject the predictable progress of conventional plotlines in favour of something that feels more risky.’ It’s surprising then that Gunn’s latest novel-ish offering is about unrequited love — a middle-aged banker for his glamorous landlady

A man, a boy, a bed

Stephen Bernard has led an institutionalised life. Behind the doors of the church presbytery, at public school, on hospital wards after repeated suicide attempts, in therapists’ offices, at Oxford University — he has sought protection and cure. Some institutions woefully failed, while others revived Bernard from the appalling child abuse inflicted by Canon T.D. Fogarty,

The germ of a revolutionary idea

Every operation starts the same way. Chlorhexidine scrubbed under nails, lathered over wet hands, palm-to-palm, fingers interlaced, thumbs, wrists, forearms. A soothing routine accompanied by the sound of water hitting a steel trough sink. Washing is an act of safety but also humility. It acknowledges a doctor’s capacity to cause disease as well as cure