Tag Archives: medicine

An Irish Country Doctor

Irish Country Doctor Cover

Book type: FIction

Summary: Dr. Barry Laverty, fresh out of medical school, finds himself in the countryside of Northern Ireland as an apprentice to Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, General Practitioner to the villagers of fictional Ballybucklebo. And as it generally goes in life, what he learned in school isn’t quite how the real world works. He’s frequently disappointed or upset by the methods used by Dr. O’Reilly, but he also learns a lot in his first few months as the senior doctor’s sidekick. He even comes to appreciate the small world of Ballybucklebo, with its eccentric residents–both humans and animals, like O’Reilly’s dog that humps his leg every time he ventures into the backyard. Life in provincial Ulster has its lessons for Barry and has some for us too.


  1. Don’t worry about the consideration of others. Early on in Barry’s introduction to Ballybucklebo, he discovers the dynamic between the country doctor and country villagers isn’t what he expected. One of the first lessons O’Reilly gives him is to never let the patients get the upper hand. At first this seems antithetical to the point of practicing medicine in Barry’s mind, however O’Reilly then tells him that if he didn’t operate the way he does, they would walk all over him, saying: “‘Didn’t take me long to find out that consideration for other people can be one of the lesser attributes of some members of the species Homo sapiens‘” (80). This lesson has an actual application that hits close to home for me, or at least for my brother. Recently my brother told me a story of how our grandmother, when she was still living, had given him some sound advice. He was concerned about how other people would think of him for something seemingly trivial. She stopped him and said, “If you knew how little other people think of you it would hurt your feelings.” Zinger! But really, stop being worried about whether other people consider you or whether they’re considerate to you. As the popular wisdom goes: go ‘head girl, you do you. That’s an Emerson quote, if I’m not mistaken.
    Emerson Quote - Be Yourself
  2. Sometimes life makes you shovel shit. Barry has a friend in the novel, Jack, who is a surgeon at the nearest hospital and he sometimes meets him for dinner or drinks. During one such visit they reminisce about life during medical school and how boring so many things were that they had to do as students, and how boring things continued even after they finished school. Jack reminds Barry of the words of an English registrar from their time there (after he complained to her about his boredom): “‘Old boy, in this life there will always be a certain amount of shit to be shovelled. I really would urge you to buy a long-handled spade and simply get on with it'” (99). This is a valuable lesson for all of us. Some people hate household chores, others hate workplace politics, still others hate family or social obligations. The fact is that either you can refuse to participate in any of those things and have a) no clean underwear, b) no possibility of being promoted, and c) no family/friends, or you can man/woman up and start shoveling that shit.
    Dog Lesson - Kick Grass Shit
  3. Advice doesn’t always have to be true to be helpful. Not long after Barry starts his work with Dr. O’Reilly, he has a day off and takes the train into Belfast and happens to meet a woman named Patricia who utterly captivates him. Unfortunately, she’s also a very serious student of engineering and doesn’t think she has the time or energy to spend cultivating a relationship with Barry, so their courtship ends. Barry, being the hopeless romantic that he is–and I do mean hopeless–is having a hard time getting over the loss of his soulmate. Compounding his sorrow is the fact that he made a misdiagnosis of a local resident, Major Fotheringham’s symptoms, resulting in his hospitalization and a difficult recovery. O’Reilly gives him some advice: “‘So finish your whiskey. […] Forget about Fotheringham. Forget about your heart. Girls are like buses. There’s always another one along soon.'” Barry then asks O’Reilly if he really believes what he’s just said: “‘No,’ said O’Reilly, ‘but there’s no reason you shouldn’t'” (238). Even though O’Reilly doesn’t believe it and even though it may be trite, his advice isn’t necessarily unsound. There’s a reason clichés become just that: sometimes the advice is good, but it’s cited so frequently that it loses its power. Sometimes those sentiments just need to be rephrased to be useful (i.e. instead of “plenty of fish in the sea,” comparing love interests to buses) and sometimes advice doesn’t have to hold true to help someone through a difficult moment.

A final review/recommendation:

Taylor, an established doctor himself, does a great job of creating a backdrop for the education of Barry Laverty. In some ways An Irish Country Doctor is almost a Bildungsroman, except instead of being the coming of age of an adolescent boy, it’s of a nascent doctor. The book is very simple, much like many of Ballybucklebo’s residents, but like them it’s simple in the best of ways: unpretentious, relatable, and entertaining. The first book in a series of many, An Irish Country Doctor is a quick read and makes for great spring reading, so next time March comes around and you’re considering an Irish book for St. Paddy’s day, pick up Taylor’s novel and be entertained by witticisms like this one about a “change of heart” that’s happened to a character named Councillor Bishop: “‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. That bugger Bertie Bishop? That man has a heart that would make Pharaoh’s hard one look like a marshmallow, so he has'” (302). And if you’re a reader you’ll appreciate the two doctors’ constant quoting of literature. And if you’re like me, you’ll smile ear to ear for the fact that Dr. O’Reilly is named after the fabulous and somewhat supercilious Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde–the greatest of the great.

Photo credits:

Book cover: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-P-4GrrorB-4/Uxe1N1vaEAI/AAAAAAAAS5A/MRaOfdl-rUo/s1600/IrishCtryDr.jpg
Sassy Emerson: http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0273/4903/products/ralph-waldo-emerson-fridge-magnet-1_large.jpg?v=1380467104
Kick That Shit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/474x/a3/26/91/a326913fd2e35c68d5d8b9016acafe95.jpg

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The Ghost Map (No White Walkers, Sorry)


Book type: Science / History

Summary: Johnson’s book is about a terrifying outbreak of cholera in a single London neighborhood in 1854 and how two men went against conventional scientific wisdom that pointed to stinky air, and instead claimed the problem started with a single case and and a contaminated water pump. Their research transformed our understanding of cholera and led to modern sewage systems, which in turn, allowed big cities to flourish and not fail.



  1. If you think your job is bad, just be glad you don’t collect human excrement for a living. Yes, there were people who did this job in the 1800s. They were called “night-soil men” and their job was not only gross, it was dangerous: “in 1326, an ill-fated laborer by the name of Richard the Raker fell into a cesspool and literally drowned in human shit” (9). Yeah, your last bad day at work doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
  2. We are really lucky that there was a real John Snow. No joke, the man who first theorized that cholera wasn’t contracted from bad-smelling air, but rather from contaminated water sources, was named John Snow.

    Ok, so the real John Snow wasn’t much of a looker, but he did save you from the potential of a brutal diarrhea death. That’s more than you can say for pretty boy, here.

    The real John Snow trudged through the streets of the neighborhood where people were dying all over, not knowing for sure that he wouldn’t contract the illness himself, and he asked residents where they got their water from. But we have someone else to thank too, and that was his eventual partner, the Reverend Henry Whitehead.

    I guess it was hard to look good back then.

    I guess it was just hard to look good back then.

    We need to thank the Rev because he visited all the sick and dying in the neighborhood without even having a theory that he was safe from the disease. He brought comfort to the living who had lost sometimes their entire family, and he brought comfort to the living when they were barely living anymore and were in the throes of agony before the end. But he did more than that. As he sat at bedside after bedside, he decided to debunk the theories that were circulating as to the reason for the pestilence (stinky air, dirty poor people, the usual). And at first that included Snow’s theory, but instead, Whitehead ended up being the cause’s biggest champion and proving the theory once and for all. So to those who think that religion only exploits people and stands in the way of science, Reverend Henry Whitehead would like to politely say, “STFU and thank me for your clean drinking water. Oh, I almost forgot: God bless.”

  3. We’re lucky that if our whole family dies at one time now-a-days, it’s generally in a quick plane crash, car accident, etc. Not so in cholera times. After drinking some contaminated water at dinner, an entire family might spend the next few days dying together in the most uncomfortable and embarrassing of ways, defecating all over and being able to do nothing to help one another. A child might die, then one of the parents, then the other parent, leaving three children dying by themselves, lying near the bodies of their dead parents and siblings. And even if your family was spared, “London seemed to be destroying itself. You could leave town for a weekend and come back to find ten percent of your neighbors being wheeled down the street in death carts. That was life in the big city” (203). How lucky we are that big city livin’ now is clubbing, celebrity spotting, and at worst, fighting off bed bugs.
  4. Sometimes smart people are really, really dumb. The smart people in 1850s London thought smelling the stinky air could give you all matters of illnesses, despite the fact that our friends the night-soil men who spent their nights knee-deep in human feces, weren’t generally that sick. Johnson notes that “Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work,” and in this case there were a lot of things at work. “Each [thing] on its own might not have been strong enough to persuade an entire public-health system to empty raw sewage into the Thames. But together they created a kind of perfect storm of error” (126). One might call that perfect storm a shit storm, and be surprisingly correct in one’s observation.
  5. If you want to live “green” or you care a lot about the environment, live in a city. It might sound counterintuitive, and I know for myself, I would freak out if I had to live somewhere where there’s no espaces verts (that’s another lesson I learned from Johnson: even though you could easily just say “green space” in English and be done with it, opt instead to be fancy and translate it to French and then move on as though there’s nothing weird about it). But true it is, if you care about conserving energy, it takes a lot more energy to have people living in rural areas with spread out infrastructure, versus if you stack everyone on top of each other. For example, “Portland’s 500,000 inhabitants require two sewage treatment plants, connected by 2,000 miles of pipes. A rural population would require more than 100,000 septic tanks, and 7,000 miles of pipe” (233). That’s a lot of pipes to move your stool. So move your ass to the city already.


A final review/recommendation:

Johnson’s book was really interesting and a quick read. If you’re at all interested in stories of people succeeding “against all odds,” then you’ll like the story of John Snow and Henry Whitehead persevering in the face of the dummies and proving them all wrong. The story is a sad one in that after all was said and done in 1854, more than 700 people within 250 yards of the water pump at Broad and Cambridge streets had died in less than two weeks (161). And it’s even more sad that despite Snow’s and Whitehead’s efforts, in June of 1866, cholera hit again and by the end of August, four thousand people had died (209). But the happy ending is that they did cause change to happen, and that change has allowed our big cities to thrive, when at the time everyone thought the big city, the cancerous monster, would soon vanish from history. This is a good summer read, so check it out and drink a big glass of clean water and tip your hat to old John and Henry.


Photo credits:
Book cover: http://nisababepraised.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/ghost-map.jpg
John Snow & Henry Whitehead: photos taken by me of my copy of The Ghost Map
Jon Snow from GoT: http://static.tvfanatic.com/images/gallery/jon-snow-photograph.jpg

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