The SRB Interview: Gavin Francis


The quality of Gavin Francis’ books belies the fact that writing is not his only occupation. Born in Fife in 1975, he qualified from medical school in Edinburgh in 1999 and spent ten years travelling around the world. In 2008 he published his first book, True North, which recounts a trip through Arctic Europe, taking in the Shetland Isles, Greenland, Iceland and Lapland. A trademark of Francis’ writing is not only his pellucid prose style but his ability to weave science, mythology, history and literature into his work. His second book, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, demonstrated a similar polymathic quality. It saw him swap the polar north for the south. Unlike the Arctic, which ‘has been written about for more than 2,000 years…the imaginative tradition of Antarctica is still young and pliable’. Francis spent fourteen months as the base-camp doctor at Halley, the British Research Station on the Coast of Antarctica, sharing this white canvas of a landscape with fourteen other staff and 60,000 Emperor Penguins.

For the time being he leads a more settled life. Now a practising GP in Edinburgh, his book Adventures in Human Being won the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award for 2015. It swaps the icy poles of the earth for the co-ordinates of the body. It is as much a history of the body through art as it is a history of the body through science. Francis also writes reviews and essays. One of his most recent pieces for the London Review of Books tells of a visit to the Edinburgh Mortuary. He is Guest Selector at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, for which he has organized a series of events about literature and medicine.

The Wohl Pathology Museum
The Wohl Pathology Museum

Nick Major met Gavin Francis in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums in an alcove of the pathology section dedicated to Charles Bell, the nineteenth-century artist and anatomist whose personal art and medical collection formed the basis of the Museums. Overlooking the pair of them were Bell’s paintings of the war-wounded, bodies in various states of disrepair. There was an air of religious quiet in the building as visitors to the museum tip-toed around the hall, staring into display cabinets at the medical curiosities, almost as if the preserved body parts therein were individual sites of benediction.

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“Gunshot wound to the abdomen” by Charles Bell

True to his profession and his wandering feet, Francis is a worldly and a down-to-earth man. He came straight from his GP clinic in Newington, and was dressed smartly in a white shirt, yellow tie and black trousers. In his early forties, he wears his years well. Clean shaven, and calm-mannered, he had a reassuring voice and spoke using considered, precise language. One sensed that his patients were never far from his mind, even when he was eloquently discussing the work of Jorge Luis Borges or Sir Thomas Browne.

Scottish Review of Books: At the beginning of Adventures in Human Being you write that as a child you wanted to be a geographer, not a doctor. Why did you change course?

Gavin Francis: To me there were a lot of similarities. I wanted to be a geographer because I loved being out in the landscape, and I also loved the kind of vicarious travelling it’s possible to do through maps. I used to spend hours leafing through a world atlas, or over Ordinance Survey maps. I was very moved by the idea that maps give order to the world – they render the complexity of the world around us into something intelligible. Then someone gave me a map of anatomy, and there were tremendous aesthetic and intellectual parallels between the two kinds of atlases. I saw there was also an inner landscape that could be mapped and mastered. When I was interviewed for medical school, at seventeen, I told them that I wanted to learn all that I could about how the body is put together.

Why did you choose Edinburgh University?

I chose Edinburgh because my brother was at Napier, and Edinburgh was familiar because I grew up in Fife. It was a kind of old-fashioned medical course, very traditional, and that appealed to me very much. At that stage it was all pre-clinical science in the first two years. It wasn’t until the third year that you went on to the wards. There’s a lot spoken now about how it’s better to get medical students straight on to the wards, but there are plenty of eighteen-year-olds who are not emotionally equipped for that. I’d have been happy at any of the Scottish medical schools, though recently they’ve been shown to have a poorer record than English ones in taking kids from state schools. Edinburgh also has the lowest proportion of graduates who turn to general practice, which strikes me as odd. I’ve always found general practice to offer the most interesting intellectual challenges, as well as a high level of autonomy, in comparison with my time in medical specialties.

Did you have any aspirations at that age to write?

Not at all. I had an aspiration to travel and see the world. I hoped that one day medicine might give me a trade to be able to travel anywhere in the world, and find work. It’s done that for me, and on those travels I used to read shelf-loads of travel and nature books – Annie Dillard, Paul Theroux, Robyn Davidson, and Bruce Chatwin. It became natural for me to want to write a book that I’d most want to read. As I get more experienced the clinical, personal contact of medicine becomes more important. There’s no way I’d want to give that up to write exclusively.

You once worked in a hospital in Tibet, and write about sending patients down the road to a traditional clinic if they had ‘unusual constellations of symptoms’. Have other, traditional approaches to medicine influenced your own practice?

I think there are universals about the way humans respond when we are in distress, whether physical or mental. It’s wonderfully reassuring to see that in action in different cultures. For example, I saw traditional bone-setters in West Africa inspiring more confidence in their patients than the Western-trained medics. Most medical traditions believe in an element of physical examination, which is partly about looking for illness, but is also about reassuring the patient, and inspiring confidence.

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Opisthotonus, tetanus following a gunshot wound by Charles Bell

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