Atul Gawande: ‘If I haven’t succeeded in making you itchy, disgusted or cry I haven’t done my job’

The bestselling surgeon-author talks about the limits of medicine, our view of death, and battles over taste with the editor of the New Yorker: The Guardian

Atul Gawande

‘I’d like to reach the point in my career when I’m not just a physician-writer, where my writing is simply writing’ … Atul Gawande. Photograph: Susannah Ireland/Eyevine

Back in the mid 1980s when he was an undergraduate at Stanford University in California, Atul Gawande took a literature class. “I did a terrible job. I got my lowest grade.” Later, as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, he had a rude awakening after reading aloud his weekly essay to his tutor. “I didn’t know how to write. It was too flabby, too verbose. It was covering up the fact that my thinking was not clear. My entire goal while I was at Oxford was to be able to successfully read an essay without the professor stopping me and saying, ‘I cannot stand this any more. Can you just stop?'”

Both stories have happy postscripts. “I joined the Stanford class because there was a girl in it I was interested in. I’m married to her now,” Gawande smiles. And while his essays at Oxford may have been poor, those in the New Yorker, where since 1998 he’s been a staff writer focusing on issues of medicine, surgery and public health, have won him many plaudits. His books – Complications (2002), Better (2007) and The Checklist Manifesto (2009) – are bestsellers. Though in 2007 he won a lucrative MacArthur “Genius” award, he continues to work as a Boston hospital surgeon and as a Harvard professor, and also runs Ariadne Labs, a centre that devises and tests medical innovations around the world.

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