Dannie Abse

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 02 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6769
  1. Sandy Goldbeck-Wood, Bodø, Norway
  1. goldbeckwood{at}

Last act in the theatre of disease

Photo credit: Amit Lennon

It’s as though Dannie Abse—physician, poet, Jew, Christian, atheist—was never quite a true believer in medicine. Grief wracked by the loss of his wife, Joan, in 2004, he documented depressive symptoms with a medic’s self objectification, but declined his physician’s actual advice—“to come if your symptoms persist.” He retorted, with just a hint of a grandiose flourish, “I’m not inclined to sit and disgorge egrimony facing the psychiatrist’s chair.”1 One might arguably read Abse’s whole life’s work as a kind of faithful disobedience to medicine.2

Abse followed his older brother, Wilfred—doctor, supporter, bequeather of textbooks inscribed with the flyleaf exhortation nil desperandum—into medicine, where he enjoyed a successful 30 year career as a chest physician. But there was always a whiff of subversion. He smoked. Intoxicated by the polyphony of words, he fraternised with other medical mavericks, warming to gerontologist and poet Alex Comfort’s doctrine of disobedience.3

Abse’s first collection of poems, After Every Green Thing, was published in 1948 while he was a medical student at Westminster Hospital, and he went on to write more than 30 books. He wrote memoir, fiction, plays, and criticism—but especially poetry.

His poetry addressed everything from painting, music, and the fortunes of Cardiff City Football Club to embodiment’s …

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