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Interview with Gavin Francis


Interview with Gavin Francis

anna magnowska

Adventures in Human Being is the fascinating new book by Gavin Francis, a GP, explorer and award- winning author. His previous books True North (2008) and Empire Antarctica (2012) took the reader on a journey through the icy terrains of Arctic Europe and the land of the Emperor Penguin respectively. His new book visits an altogether closer yet no less mysterious destination: the human body. Dr Francis spoke to PRN about writing his enchanting 'users guide to the body' which, from head to toe, reacquaints us with flesh, blood, bone and tissue from a cultural, historical and personal perspective. 

All images are from Adventures in Human Being

L’Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888)

L’Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888)

PRN: How did the idea for Adventures in Human Being come about?

GF: I have always been passionate about geography, and also about medicine, and see the body as kind of landscape – the most intimate one of all.  When I’m consulting I feel as if I’m travelling through the body as well as through the lives of my patients. When I write travel books, like True North (2008) or Empire Antarctica (2012) I usually write about the landscape woven with historical, cultural, and contemporary references and perspectives. This is the same idea, but turned on the body.

PRN: The images from the Wellcome Collection fit so perfectly with the text - how did this collaboration happen?

GF: The Wellcome Trust loved the idea of the book and it’s published partly by them – they gave me free rein of their image collection which anyone can explore online – I recommend spending some time in there.

Cancer of the Breast, Field Operation, just before the final cut (Wellcome Library).

Cancer of the Breast, Field Operation, just before the final cut (Wellcome Library).

PRN: Your previous books have been about travel, and you have described this book as a journey through the body - what comes to mind for me is the famous Proust quote "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Has writing this book given you new eyes, and was your intention to give the reader new eyes?

GF: Writing the book didn’t give me new eyes as such, but it made me pay closer attention to the sorts of cultural and historical reflections that medical practice throws up every day – and yes, I certainly hope it helps some readers transform their perspective on their own bodies.

PRN: Were you taught about the body in a cultural and historical context - as well as anatomically and pathophysiologically at medical school? If not, do you think it would benefit medical students to learn about the body through making connections between art, history, culture, beliefs and physicality - such as in your book? 

GF: I think it helps all clinicians to see their patients in a broader context, whether that’s in a historical or cultural context, or whether it’s within the broader context of their own family and home life.  I wasn’t particularly taught well about this until I started to train in general practice, and see first-hand how our beliefs about our bodies have huge impact on the way we experience illness.

Foetus attached to the umbilical cord and placenta (Wellcome Library).

Foetus attached to the umbilical cord and placenta (Wellcome Library).

PRN: How do you reconcile the busy life of a GP, with short consultations and growing numbers of patients, with providing care that doesn’t just focus on the physical?

GF: It’s very difficult and there’s no easy answers – we just do the best we can in the time we’ve got, and for all its frustrations, it’s an extraordinarily privileged position to be in.  At the end of the day we work to make people feel better – to ‘ease suffering’ if that doesn’t sound too melodramatic – and few people are in that kind of fortunate and deeply satisfying position.

Demonstration Using the Vibrator, 1891 (Wellcome Library).

Demonstration Using the Vibrator, 1891 (Wellcome Library).

PRN: What made you want to pick up a pen and start writing?

GF: I’ve always been a great reader, and it was natural for me to want to write the kind of book that I’d most want to read.

PRN: How did you hone your skills as a writer?

GF: Read, read, and read some more.

PRN: Which travel, medical or science writers do you admire and could you recommend your favourite book from these authors?

GF: There are many of them, and I don’t limit myself too much to medical or science writing – I love the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, I love Bruce Chatwin’s books, and for subtle, exquisitely observed portrayals of human relationships I don’t think you can do better than JD Salinger’s short stories.

The Bones and Muscles of the Hip and Thigh, 1841 (Wellcome Library).

The Bones and Muscles of the Hip and Thigh, 1841 (Wellcome Library).

PRN: Do you have any more expeditions or books in the pipeline?

GF: No more expeditions for a while, and as for books, there are usually twenty or so teeming in my head at any one moment, so I’ll give it some time and see whether one of them catches hold…