Richard Smith asks who is the E O Wilson of medicine?

Richard Smith A friend has written to me asking whom I think might be the “E O Wilson of Medicine,” and I’m stumped. Perhaps some readers of the BMJ have never heard of E O Wilson. For those that haven’t he is a Harvard biologist who has twice won the Pullitzer Prize and who invented “consilience,” the synthesis of knowledge from different areas of human study. In short, he’s the person most biologists would like to read. (I must confess that I’never read him, although I have Consilience on my “to read” list – along with 300 other books.)

My first reaction to the question is that we have no such person in medicine. We don’t have stars like they do in the other sciences, and we are very fragmented. My bet is that 20 doctors from different specialties and countries might give answers that would have almost no overlap. Plus doctors who write well are not necessarily the same as those who are thought of as leading doctors.

But then I think I’m being pathetic. I love to read, and I’ve been reading what doctors write (often without much love, I must confess) for 40 years. Surely I can come up with some names. Then I have the thought that this is perfect blogging material—where “the wisdom of the many” may be able to answer my friend’s question. So I’ll give you my ideas and then you give me yours—and if you can be bothered react to mine.

Top of my list is Boston surgeon Atul Gawande, who will probably himself win a Pullitzer prize one day. His book Better is brilliant. Don Berwick is another Bostonian,  a paediatrician, a leading thinker on quality improvement, and a friend of mine. His lecture to the annual meeting of the Royal College of General Practitioners was a highlight of last year for me. You can read his lecture in the college journal.

David Eddy, an American surgeon and thinker, is one of the biggest brains in medicine and writes beautifully.

I thought that Oliver Sachs, the British neurologist who now lives in the US, might have actually won a Pullitzer prize, but he hasn’t. His book Awakenings was, however, made into an Oscar nominated film, and another book, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, became an opera.

David Weatherall, once Regius professor of medicine in Oxford, writes with great insight, and Iain Chalmers, founder of the Cochrane Collaboration, always has something interesting and usually provocative to say.

Two other Harvard professors, Bob and Suzanne Fletcher, who were  editors of the Annals of Internal Medicine, write interesting stuff, and Marcia Angell, once editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, shouldn’t be forgotten not least for her book The Truth about Drug Companies.

I seem to have far too many people from Boston and Oxford, so let me end my list with two further editors, both friends, who are from other places. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of JAMA and former mountain climber and nephrologist, has written what I think to be the greatest sentence in medical journalism (see footnote) and much else with great style and wit. And if it’s not too cheeky in the BMJ I have to mention Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, who can always be relied on to kick up a storm and has written many wonderful pieces in the New York Review of Books.

OK, where’s your list?

The greatest sentence in medical journalism: “There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.”

Drummond Rennie

Competing interest: Many of the people listed above are friends of RS’s, and he really has no idea who is the E O Wilson of medicine.