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‘A small cemetery’: death and dying in the contemporary British operating theatre
  1. Agnes Arnold-Forster
  1. Humanities, University of Roehampton, London SW15 5PU, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster, Humanities, University of Roehampton, London SW15 5PU, UK; agnes.arnoldforster{at}


Surgeon Henry Marsh begins his autobiography, Do No Harm, with a quotation from the French practitioner René Leriche, “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray—a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures”. This article uses memoirs and oral history interviews to enter the operating theatre and consider the contemporary history of surgeons’ embodied experiences of patient death. It will argue that these experiences take an under-appreciated emotional toll on surgeons, but also that they are deployed as a narrative device through which surgeons construct their professional identity. Crucially, however, there is as much forgetting as remembering in their accounts, and the ‘labour’ of death has been increasingly shifted out of the operating theatre, off the surgeons’ hands and into the laps of others. The emotional costs of surgical care remain understudied. Indeed, while many researchers agree that undergoing surgery can be a troubling emotional experience for the patient, less scholarly attention has been paid to the emotional demands performing surgery makes on surgical practitioners. Is detachment the modus operandi of the modern surgeon and if so, is it tenable in moments of emotional intensity—like patient death?

  • medical humanities
  • surgery
  • history
  • end of life care
  • doctor

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  • Contributors AA-F is the sole author of this article and no one else contributed.

  • Funding This study is funded by Wellcome Trust (108667/Z/15/Z).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement There are no data in this work.

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