Observations BMJ Confidential

Raymond Tallis: Every doctor should read Chekhov

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f6575 (Published 07 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6575

In the latest in its series asking the movers and shakers of the medical world about work, life, and less serious matters, the BMJ spoke to a passionate believer in doctor assisted suicide


Raymond Tallis, 66, is a philosopher, thinker, and writer and by profession a doctor who was professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester. He has published poetry, fiction, critiques of literary theory, cultural criticism, and extensive writing on the philosophy of mind, as well as 200 medical publications, principally into the neurology of old age, and two textbooks. He is a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. A humanist, Tallis is chairman of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying.

What was your earliest ambition?

Lost, alas, in the mists of Tallis.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Within medicine, without a doubt the neurologist Lee Illis, for whom I worked as a research fellow. I spent the next 25 years of my research trying to deliver on his ideas about science based approaches to neurological rehabilitation, focusing on reversing neurological impairments.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

The competition for that accolade, alas, is fierce. Suffice it to say, I have tried to make up for my own errors by small contributions to making the world of medical practice a more mistake proof zone.

What was your best career move?

Becoming an academic geriatrician.

Bevan or Lansley? Who’s been the best and the worst health secretary in your lifetime?

The worst by far was Lansley. If his health act is not repealed, the NHS will be destroyed and we shall have less care for more money. Bevan remains unsurpassed as a practical, compassionate visionary who was exercised by the unnecessary death, suffering, and hardship that resulted from the pre-NHS world—to which the coalition wishes to return us.

Who is the person you would most like to thank and why?

The most obvious answer, my wife, is true. She has made everything possible.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

As I get older I have found it easier to apologise, so I would have to go a long way back to find something that I haven’t apologised for. I might therefore have the embarrassing experience of finding my apology received with a blank, uncomprehending stare. There may, however, be many people out there who, unknown to me, believe quite reasonably that I owe them an apology.

If you were given a £1m, what would you spend it on?

Promoting numeracy in journalism so that the national conversation would be more intelligent and the world consequently safer and less exasperating.

Where are or were you happiest?

There are different kinds of happiness appropriate to different phases in life. The present quiet happiness would be hard to beat.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?

The increasing appreciation that seemingly irreversible problems among older people may be due to reversible causes presenting atypically.

Do you believe in doctor assisted suicide?

Yes, passionately, for mentally competent patients who are terminally ill and have expressed a wish for assistance to die. The law at present is cruel and confused; in short it is a moral disgrace.

What book should every doctor read?

Anything by Chekhov but especially Ward 6.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Experience of Death.”

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Guilt prevents me from making it public. So I shall invent a minor vice, such as eating too many biscuits, to enable me to pass on to the next question.

If you could be invisible for a day what would you do?

Wait for the moment when my visibility was restored and I could enjoy having my gaze reciprocated again.

Clarkson or Clark? Would you rather watch Top Gear or Civilisation?

If, after my death, I find myself faced with the televised face of Clarkson, I know I shall have gone to Hell.

What is your most treasured possession?


What personal ambition do you still have?

To complete an ongoing inquiry into the nature of human beings that avoids both naturalistic and supernatural accounts of what we are. Nothing of what I have published so far has got to the heart of the matter.

Summarise your personality in three words

I have enough insight to know that my self characterisation would lack insight and not be shared by others.

Where does alcohol fit into your life?

Too well.

What is your pet hate?

The knowingness of those who can make immediate shallow sense of everything they encounter.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

A little bit of everything I like, in order to turn my palate into memory lane.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor?

None except that it left less time for the other things I would like to have done or become. This is the fault not of medicine but of living a life of only a finite number of days that last only 24 hours.

If you weren’t in your present role, what would you be doing instead?

I am now retired and am able to write all day. Why should I want to do anything else?


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6575

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