A good friend of mine, Rob Mulcahy, was an assistant to Dr. Lloyd Smith, for 20 years. He came to know Dr. Smith as a kind, gentle, extremely helpful surgeon with a passion for his job. Rob Mulcahy says that Dr. Smith changed his life. After many years of being the low man on the totem pole, Rob Mulcahy came to the realization that it was time to “come up”, and that this would in effect change his whole relationship with his doctor.
As I sat there I wondered how he could have come to that conclusion. Surely it wasn't because of the money or the job promotion, he said. Rather it was because he realised that in order to really excel at what he does, he needed to learn from people who had achieved great success in their respective fields, both in the medical and scientific worlds. One such person was Dr William Powell. In my view Dr Powell had done a lot to pave the way for modern medical research. His The Medicine and Science of Healing are without doubt one of the most widely read and highly regarded texts in the world today.
So why has Dr Powell's work was lost in the mists of time? What about his medical ethics. And especially, who was the patient? Was he a young girl, an old man or a woman? How would his patients feel if they knew that their sessions with him were not only entertaining but also highly therapeutic and uplifting?
What lessons can we draw from Dr Powell's work, that might still be relevant even today? How might a relationship between a surgeon and his or her patients change? What kinds of pressures would there be? How might these changes take shape and form?
I have a theory that as far as we can tell by now, Dr. Powell was a very “writer” man. In other words, he was primarily a textual writer. It is my belief that if you read some of his clinical documentation and accounts of his surgical work, it seems as though he was primarily a writing man. He would often describe in great detail what the surgery was for and why he was performing it. This would include detailed accounts of the patient's history, the state of her illness and their relationship prior . . . . . . to the operation, their post-operative care and so on.
But it must be said that he did occasionally add more text to his accounts of the patients' lives – he included an account of the aftercare work, for example – but in general, the bulk of his work was in the form of re-creating the operative and pre-operative environment in his surgical room. He would describe what the operative theatre looked like, the lights, the smells, the people present – sometimes speaking of specific details such as the smell of the fat layer under the skin of a patient who had just had a gastric bypass and what this procedure might feel like. Only very rarely did he write clearly about specific operations, such as those of an endoscopy.