September Issue: Death and Dying in the Operating Theatre

In today’s post we are happy to present a summary of ‘A small cemetery’: death and dying in the contemporary British operating theatre by Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster (@agnesjuliet on Twitter).

A head shot of the author wearing dark blue scrubs with surgery cap. She has dark brows and is smiling at the viewer.Dr Arnold-Forster is a historian of health, work, and the emotions. She received her PhD in 2017 from King’s College London and until August 2020 was Research and Engagement Fellow on the Wellcome Trust-funded project, ‘Surgery & Emotion’. She is now an Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, undertaking a new project called ‘Working and Feeling in the Modern British Hospital’. Her first book, The Cancer Problem, is will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2021 and her second, Cold, Hard Steel: The Surgical Stereotype Past and Present, is under contract with Manchester University Press.

A summary of the work appears below– and you can hear more from the author here:


This article uses memoirs and oral history interviews with surgeons to explore the impact of patient death on their feelings, values, and professional identities. Stereotypes about surgeons are widespread. In popular culture, professional circles, and the press they are painted as emotionally detached, dispassionate, and dictatorial. In contrast, the surgeons I have spoken to make it clear that death takes an under-appreciated emotional toll on them, and that the experience of losing a patient is often key to the narratives they tell about their personal and professional lives.

In contrast, some of the surgeon I interviewed struggled to remember instances of patient death and there is as much forgetting as remembering in their accounts. I suggest that this is partly because the ‘labour’ of death has been increasingly shifted out of the operating theatre, off the surgeons’ hands, and onto the laps of others. Surgery is now so safe that deaths on the operating table are thankfully rare. Dying has also become a specialism and it is mostly nurses and palliative care professionals who preside over death today. While this is obviously a good thing, it might mean that future surgeons will be less well equipped to cope with patient deaths when they do occur.

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