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Observations BMJ Confidential

David Nott: Drawn to the sound of gunfire

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 12 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2016

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 the so called “Indiana Jones of surgery”


David Nott is a London surgeon inexorably drawn to the sound of gunfire. For two decades he has taken unpaid leave almost every year to provide help and to train doctors in war zones, starting in Sarajevo in 1993 and most recently in Syria. He operates, lectures, and innovates, cutting death rates in Syria by stemming bleeding and controlling sepsis before operating. He is unmarried and without ties, which is one reason why he is prepared to take risks. He has now launched a training programme, using British government funds procured by Tony Redmond of Manchester University, to train more doctors in the skills needed to deal with traumatic war injuries and natural disasters. In London he operates at Chelsea and Westminster, St Mary’s, and the Royal Marsden.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be an airline pilot. I had about 50 model planes hanging from my bedroom ceiling when I was a boy.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

I was inspired by the surgical hands of three colleagues: Bernard De Sousa, Peter Harris, and Meirion Thomas.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Being too ambitious and not marrying the love of my life when I was a senior registrar in Liverpool.

What was your best career move?

Going to Sarajevo with Médecins Sans Frontières in the 1990s.

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

They all have a difficult job, but most memorable for me is Frank Dobson. The story of him meeting Nelson Mandela still makes me laugh.

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

Johnny Woods, the psychiatrist. We shared a room in our first year at St Andrews University, and he has been my lifelong best friend. He has a natural sense of humour that can surpass any professional entertainer.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

My mother.

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

At the moment I would give it to the British charity Syria Relief (

Where are or were you happiest?

It has to be my decadent hobby of piloting, and hopefully not scaring friends and colleagues down the heli routes through London on a beautiful day.

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

My understanding of the physiology of trauma. It allows me to do what is right for the patient in any environment I find myself.

Do you believe in doctor assisted suicide?

I believe that patients should be treated with dignity and with humanity, and if it means that doctors should be allowed to assist in alleviating suffering, then yes.

What book should every doctor read?

Jonathan Kaplan’s The Dressing Station.

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

Stairway to Heaven. Not because it is cheesy to have it at a funeral, but because I first heard it as a medical student lying in bed with second degree burns to my arm after inviting my girlfriend to come round for pancakes by candlelight.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Cycling through heavy London traffic in the outside lane, listening to heavy rock on my earphones.

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

I would let out all the medical aid workers that have either been imprisoned or kidnapped throughout the world.

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

I enjoy both, but my preference is programmes about challenging human endeavour.

What is your most treasured possession?

My laptop.

What personal ambition do you still have?

I would like to be in a position to have the authority to cross religious and political boundaries and to show those in control that basic humanity, including surgery, has no other motives than to alleviate suffering and that all health workers should be free to do their work.

Summarise your personality in three words.

Determined, obsessional, understanding.

Where does alcohol fit into your life?

I like a glass of red wine now and again, especially with Époisses cheese (the smellier, the better).

What is your pet hate?


What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Haggis, neeps, and tatties.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor?

No regrets.

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

I would be sitting in a chair very depressed, because nothing else comes close to the enjoyment of being able to help people in a war zone.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2016

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