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P.C. Jersild, Medicinska memoarer (Medical Memories)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100111373

Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2007:2

In his Professionella memoarer (Professional Memoirs, 1981) and Fem hjärtan i en tändsticksask (Five Hearts in a Matchbox, 1989) Jersild has already given us many details of his life. As the title suggests, these latest memoirs take us through his medical training and his subsequent career. His elder brother Hans, who had wanted to study medicine, contracted TB, and it was the younger brother who joined the medical faculty instead. With critical honesty typical of the work as a whole Jersild admits that the lure of status, money and control were also contributory factors in his choice of vocation. He also had a desire to be a writer, and with Lars Gyllensten as his model, hoped he would be able to combine the two professions.

Jersild produces well-observed, critical sketches of some of the leading professors and specialists he met in the course of his studies, and in some ways paints something of a time-piece. Until World War II, for example, medical texts were mostly in German. Several older Swedish professors had Nazi leanings, and Professor Gunnar Biörck, although he had studied in the United States, had helped prevent Jewish doctors fleeing Nazi Germany from entering Sweden. It was Gyllensten who introduced English texts into his courses. Jersild also had mentors with politically left-wing leanings, but these he encountered when studying social medicine and psychiatry/psychology, often pioneering branches of the medical curriculum, to which he was drawn at an early stage. Through his literary connections he met many well-known writers, such as Sonja Åkesson and Göran Tunström, but it was through his social interests, when in fact visiting an institution for young offenders, that he encountered Tomas Tranströmer helping the inmates.

Jersild mentions in passing a few little snippets of information that would interest the layman. When studying schizophrenia he learnt, for instance, that Hermann Goering had been a patient at Långbro in the 1920s. Jersild was a competent cartoonist and, in need of money, persuaded Astra, the pharmaceutical firm, to buy his sketches which they used in their literature. "Thus it was," he adds laconically, "that in a small way I was one of those who advertised thalidomide, a product that was to produce one of the worst post-war medical catastrophes" (p.100).

After his medical training Jersild spent surprisingly few years in medical practice: six years in social medicine and eight years dealing part-time with medical staff. Perhaps this is why he is able to distance himself and see some faults in the medical profession. Sometimes intentionally stressed and always apparently in a hurry, doctors feel the need to demonstrate their authority. Jersild believes, however, that more time should be spent interviewing patients, leading to a more accurate diagnosis and ultimately saving time and even lives. He also believes that knowledge of a patient’s social background is important.

As he points out here, Jersild has often used his medical experiences as source material for his creative writing. His literary success has raised his profile in medical circles and he has been fortunate in that such works as Babels hus (House of Babel), a critical look at a large state-of-the-art hospital, have not made him persona non grata among the medical brethren. Rather the reverse – a gifted writer with professional expertise in social, ethical and psycho-social medicine has found himself in demand in the community. He states that he has become "a public person". He was invited to join the Medical-Ethical Council set up by Olof Palme shortly before his death; he was given a column in Dagens Nyheter with a free hand to research advances in genetics, enabling him to visit leading universities in Sweden, Germany and the USA; he was on the Central Committee on Epidemiology; was a Swedish representative on a three-year EU project on medicine and literature; was invited to Harpsund during the premierships of Erlander, Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson; he was guest writer for a session at Uppsala University; a member of the Council of Karolinska Institutet, and in 1999 a member of Kungliga Vetenskaps-akademien (Royal Academy of Sciences).

Jersild gives his reasoned views on many issues: euthanasia and the definition of death, genetic and stem cell research, organ transplants, nuclear disarmament, medical training, the welfare state, etc. He shows no sign of false humility, but with his range of expertise and experience he is perhaps more qualified than most to pontificate on essential questions of our times.

Irene Scobbie

Also by P.C. Jersild

  • Edens bakgård (The Back Yard of Eden). Reviewed by Peter Hogg in SBR 2010:1.

Other reviews by Irene Scobbie

Other reviews in SBR 2007:2

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