This year’s BBC Reith Lecturer is the American writer and surgeon Atul Gawande. Gawande, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is also a staff writer for the New Yorker, has chosen as his topic “The Future of Medicine”. His lectures will “examine the nature of progress and failure in medicine, a field defined by what he calls ‘the messy intersection of science and human fallibility’.” They are complemented by Gawande’s latest book, his fourth, which is entitled “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and what Matters in the End.”
I met Gawande in London recently and talked to him about ageing, death and the need for medical practitioners to think harder about the nature of human wellbeing.
JD: Your 2002 book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science was about what surgeons and other medical practitioners can know with certainty. It was, you might say, a work of medical epistemology. Being Mortal, on the other hand, is a book about what it means to human, to be mortal. And also about how we—the medical profession in particular—manage mortality. You might say its focus is on metaphysics and/or ethics.
AG: Right. And I didn’t expect it to go there. I thought it was going to be about how you manage this very conflicted point—which is the decision point as you near death. But once I realised that people have priorities in their life that are bigger than just surviving and living longer, it extende…