For many years, I have written about medical matters (mostly related to medical engineering) in research papers, reviews, books, opinions and so on. These texts have had to be precise and factual, usually without recourse to the freedom of literary style and poetic license. Partly because of such constraints, I started writing poetry a number of years ago, but this was, initially, totally outside the realms of medicine, science or engineering, which gave me much freedom, being unencumbered by academic reputation and knowledge. In reality, writing poetry about medical subjects is rather difficult since the terminology, whilst conveying aspects of diseases and their treatment, is not really conducive to poetic language, whether rhyming or not. A few years ago, on being asked to write a poem for a meeting of cardiac surgeons and cardiologists in Cape Town, I immediately recognized this difficulty and started my creation with; “Regurgitation does not flow in a poem, Nor stenosis, aneurysm, dissection, transcatheter, Not even acronyms, TAVI, TEVAR, What is a bard to do?”.
Whilst quite happy with the outcome of that poem, I did not consider writing too many ‘medical’ poems at that time, but reconsidered this during the drafting of book on “A Brief History of Africa, in Poems, Short Stories and Sonnets”. I spend a considerable amount of time in South Africa, and was in Cape Town for the 50th anniversary of the world’s first human heart transplant, carried out there by Christiaan Barnard in 1967. I was determined to write a poem about this event, but my normal constraints were still a deterrent. It was at that point I decided to make it a more difficult challenge by confining myself to the use of the sonnet format. Widely practiced by Shakespeare, this form of poetry is very precise with (at least in Shakespeare’s format) a total of 14 lines, 10 syllables per line, and a rhyming pattern of a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f, g, g. This turned into a very enjoyable challenge, the result of which is contained in this current collection (Barnard’s Fame).
Barnard’s operation was of monumental significance, from ethical, geo-political and technological as well as medical perspectives. It occurred to me then that the ‘history of medicine’ contains many such pivotal occasions, all of which would, or should, be referenced in any treatise on medical history. This interests me considerably, but I am not a conventional historian. Neither am I an acknowledged poet, but I do now have some experience in this genre, to go along with my half-century in medical engineering, and so I conceived the idea of writing a collection of sonnets about these pivotal, in some cases ground-breaking, achievements.
This is not a treatise on the history of medicine, as alluded to above; it is neither comprehensive, nor analytical. I do not recount the development of those disciplines within medicine that have contributed so much to the status of health care today, such as epidemiology, public health, biostatistics and so on. I do not cite all of the careful experimental work of teams of scientists and clinicians that provided the landscape from within which a monumental achievement emerged or erupted; nor do I describe the very many failed attempts to acquire fame and glory which have, regrettably but inevitably, also populated that landscape.
What I have done is to select a number of events, usually but not always associated with one pioneer, that to my mind (without doubt a strongly biased mind) have provided the major stimuli to medical developments. Some may be considered as true scientific discoveries, some the products of intuition and some the result of serendipity. There are no obvious connections between these sonnets; they have to be considered as individual entities. They are arranged in approximate chronological order.
In writing sonnets, the necessity of relying on poetic license is almost inevitable. Some words are my own but their meaning is obvious from their source – the need for strict syllabic content takes preference here. Also, some words can be read faster or slower, which gives a little flexibility over rhyming or syllable count.
As a final point I should add that there may appear to be biases in this collection. There are reasons for this; the USA does not figure prominently because many of the profound medical developments occurred in Europe before American medicine had become established. Some of the entries relate to inventions and people that concern my own professional interests in medical engineering and implantable devices. Whilst this may not seem surprising, it is, I believe, justified. Perhaps of relevance here is the fact that in the early days of my profession I had the opportunity to meet with some of these people, for example John Charnley, Graeme Clark and Chris Barnard. There is little more motivating for a young professional than to enter, however briefly, the causeways of giants.