Rebecca Coombes: Pen mightier than the scalpel…

bookForget the Man Booker prize, that’s over for another year. Instead medico-literary eyes are on a £25k prize set to be awarded by a well-endowed medical charity next month. The Wellcome Trust Book Award, which aims to celebrate medicine in literature, has just announced its 2010 shortlist for works of fiction or non-fiction on the theme of health, illness, or medicine.

Four of the shortlisted books – whose subjects range from the US healthcare system to medics in war zones such as Afghanistan – have already featured in the pages of the BMJ. Reviewed back in March, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Pan Macmillan, £7.99) tells the story of a black mother of five children who died young of an aggressive cervical adenocarcinoma.  Before her death, cells were removed and, without her knowledge, became the first human cells grown in culture.  Companies were set up to package and sell these so-called HeLa cells, and there are still billions of them in laboratories all over the world.  Without the family’s knowledge, these companies made millions.

Also making millions – and then some more – are the US healthcare companies featured in Lionel Shriver’s book So Much for That (Harper Collins, £15). Shriver chronicles the travails of Shep, a New York suburban redneck, and his family as they navigate the healthcare system and face bankruptcy trying to meet the exorbitant cost of caring for a cancer patient. It even won over Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist, who reviewed the book for the BMJ.

“I don’t read much and certainly not novels by American feminist writers. And I don’t do books about people with cancer. But [this book] really shook me,” he said.

Another BMJ reviewer – associate editor Christopher Martyn – may be surprised at the inclusion of Tim Parks’ book Teach us to Sit Still (Harvill Secker, £12.99) on the Wellcome shortlist. In his frank BMJ review Martyn finds the book “little more than a long self absorbed account of the inner journey of a man desperately seeking meaning in and relief from chronic symptoms.” Not one for the second edition’s dust jacket then. Sales have yet to suffer: Parks’ book is currently ranked 80 in’s top 100 best selling biographies.

Finally Gareth Williams, a professor of medicine from Bristol, is also in the running for the prize. His book about smallpox Angel of Death (Palgrave Macmillan, £18.99) was the basis of a BMJ editorial by Williams in March. Here, he called for the restoration of Dr Edward Jenner’s statue to London’s Trafalgar Square in recognition of his work developing a vaccine against the smallpox virus. Angel of Death’s insight captures the 18th and 19th century battle for and against vaccination, a tension which remains alive today with modern anti-vaccination campaigns.

The full shortlist is available at and the winner will be announced on 6 November.

Rebecca Coombes is the features editor, BMJ