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Doctor On The Job

BOOK: Doctor On The Job
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Doctor On The Job


First published in 1976

© Richard Gordon; House of Stratus 1976-2012


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.


The right of Richard Gordon to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.


This edition published in 2012 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.


Typeset by House of Stratus.


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.




This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.

About the Author


Richard Gordon
, real name Dr. Gordon Stanley Ostlere, was born in England on 15 September 1921. He is best-known for his hilarious ‘Doctor’ books. Himself a qualified doctor, he worked as an anaesthetist at the famous St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (where he was also a medical student) and later as a ship’s surgeon, before leaving medical practice in 1952 to take up writing full time. Many of his books are based on his own true experiences in the medical profession and are all told with the wry wit and candid humour that have become his hallmark.

In all, there are eighteen titles in the
Series, with further comic writings in another seven volumes, including
‘Great Medical Disasters’
‘Great Medical Mysteries’
, plus more serious works concerning the lives of medical practitioners.

He has also published several technical books under his own name, mainly concerned with anaesthetics for both students and patients. Additionally, he has written on gardening, fishing and cricket and was also a regular contributor to
magazine. His
‘Private Lives’
series, taking in
Dr. Crippen, Jack the Ripper
Florence Nightingale
, has been widely acclaimed.

The enormous success of
Doctor in the House
, first published in the 1950’s, startled its author. It was written whilst he was a surgeon aboard a cargo ship, prior to a spell as an academic anaesthetist at Oxford. His only previous literary experience had been confined to work as an assistant editor of the
British Medical Journal
. There was, perhaps, a foretaste of things to come whilst working on the
as the then editor, finding Gordon somewhat jokey, put him in charge of the obituaries!

The film of
Doctor in the House
uniquely recovered its production costs whilst still showing at the cinema in London’s West End where it had been premiered. This endeared him to the powerful Rank Organisation who made eight films altogether of his works, which were followed by a then record-breaking TV series, and further stage productions.

Richard Gordon’s books have been translated into twenty languages.

He married a doctor and they had four children, two of whom became house surgeons. He now lives in London.


On a bright Monday morning in early June, Sir Lancelot Spratt, FRCS, senior surgeon of St Swithin’s Hospital, stepped through the automatically parting plate-glass entrance doors of the Bertram Bunn Wing, an annex to the towering rebuilt hospital itself. The wing was named after Sir Bertram Bunn, the St Swithin’s surgeon who assisted at the removal of King Edward the Seventh’s appendix on his Coronation Day in 1902 and made a fortune, His Majesty having invested appendicectomy with the respectability and publicity his descendants afforded showjumping. It appropriately catered exclusively for private patients, many of them paying in the foreign currency so relished and cherished as it rang in the near-empty vaults of the Bank of England less than a mile away.

The annex was ten storeys high, its peak the penthouse suite, brand new glass and concrete gleaming like an actress’ eye-tooth. Though at the edge of the City of London, it looked upon an artfully designed garden with spraying fountains, a lily pond, neatly pruned trees and vividly flowering bushes bursting from paths of snowy gravel, suggesting on sunny days the courtyard of some grassless Eastern palace. The garden was visible through the long glass wall of the entrance hall, setting an atmosphere which in his meditative moods Sir Lancelot savoured fondly. It recalled to him the
of Casablanca and Fez which he had explored as a holidaymaking young doctor, the Casbah of Algiers, countless clamorous bazaars among tortuous rough-cobbled streets, inky black when stumbled upon from the blinding white sunlight of timeless North Africa. As the glass doors slid silently together again behind him that hot morning, he remembered with an inner smile the exciting twang of strange instruments, the spicy smell of never-tasted foods, the dark eyes gazing in intriguing if exasperating isolation above the yashmak.

The Bertram Bunn’s lobby, like the vast entrance hall of the new St Swithin’s itself, resembled those indistinguishable, interchangeable hotels which proliferate round the world for flitting businessmen, who find themselves unable to discern in which continent they have landed or even if they are still at home. The wall opposite the garden was occupied by a white plastic counter, behind which a pair of St Swithin’s porters in their brown coats and a receptionist in a white nylon overall attended to the wants and worries of patients and visitors. The luxurious wing employed the same staff as the main National Health Hospital. It was simply that section of St Swithin’s designated for paying customers, by some unknown Civil Servant in the Department of Health across London at the Elephant and Castle.

At the far end of the lobby was a small shop for the patients’ convenience, exactly as in St Swithin’s itself. But this one was crammed with objects which Sir Lancelot often eyed enviously – expensive matching sets of golf clubs, fabulously priced shotguns, jewellery, tweeds, rare and superb brands of malt whisky, stone jars of Oxford marmalade. A glittering escalator softly mumbled, lifts whisked up and down, unmemorable music unobtrusively filled the well-conditioned air. The floor was of multicoloured patterned mosaic, upon which a pair of patients’ families squatted, eating an early midday meal with their fingers from a bucket.

‘Sir Lancelot –’

‘Ah! Good morning, Matron.’ He tried to look as if he had neither noticed her nor hoped to slip past her.

‘I must see you instantly,’ she hissed.

The Bertram Bunn Wing had its own matron, staring at him distractedly from the half open door of her steel-and-glass office. She was small, brisk, blonde, divorced, still in her thirties, at that moment shrimp-pink with indignation. She wore a plain dark blue dress with a large silver St Swithin’s crest on the bosom, a tiny starched cap perched on her curls like the lid of a vol-au-vent and a pair of crisp muslin streamers floating down her neck.

‘Couldn’t it wait until lunchtime?’ Sir Lancelot suggested optimistically. ‘I’m already late. I should have started on the Sheikh of Shatt al Shufti’s double hernia twenty minutes ago.’

‘It can’t wait another moment,’ she told him fiercely.

‘The Sheikh’s probably already anaesthetized,’ he objected. ‘He has been impressed upon me as a person of such importance to our country’s economy, I feel I hardly dare keep him waiting, even unconscious.’

‘Instantly,’ she repeated.

‘He has taken the penthouse at vast expense, so can at least expect quick service –’

‘Lancelot, you are being evasive, if not cowardly.’

Sir Lancelot Spratt submissively entered her compact office.

The senior surgeon was tall and broad shouldered, chestnut haired and ruddy faced. Imagined without his beard – which few people at St Swithin’s could – like many well-reared and well-nourished Englishmen he carried into middle age a resemblance of himself as a bun-faced schoolboy. Sir Lancelot’s look commanded. His smile honoured. His frown terrified. He also possessed that air of effortless eupepsia essential in the successful medical man, and though admitting that he was neither the greatest of surgeons nor of scientists, agreed that he enjoyed the priceless professional asset of knowing absolutely everyone who mattered. As for the knighthood, he claimed that honours were largely a matter of finding the plastic spaceship in your portion of cornflakes.

‘This is the end,’ announced the matron, as she slammed the door behind him. ‘I’m tendering my resignation.’

‘Oh, come,’ said Sir Lancelot soothingly. ‘Come, come. You must be joking?’

‘Some joke!’ She gave a laugh like the caress of two sheets of emery paper.

‘You must not take such a decision lightly. It is a grave one for all of us in the Bertie Bunn, both staff and patients –’

‘Don’t talk to me about patients,’ she interrupted furiously.

Sir Lancelot stood stroking his beard, suppressing both an impatience to be in the operating theatre and an impulse to lay the matron across his knee to belabour her chubby bottom. He embarked upon the scene with weariness but confidence, having played it several times before. He often felt that the newly opened Bertram Bunn Wing aggravated his normal clinical duties with administrative and diplomatic ones sufficient to sink a man of less stormproof personality.

‘Patients! That’s why I’m resigning. This time irrevocably. One of yours, too,’ she snapped accusingly. ‘The one you’re just going to operate on. The one who took the penthouse and the whole top two floors. The one that man at the Foreign Office keeps ringing up, to ask if he’s comfy. The one with all the Rolls-Royces.’ She shuddered. ‘He did it on the floor.’

‘Dear me,’ said Sir Lancelot mildly. He suggested charitably, ‘Perhaps it was an accident?’

‘Accident be damned. He does it every morning.’

Sir Lancelot assumed a pained expression. ‘Doesn’t he ring for a bedpan? The communication system in this wing is so highly sophisticated it is of course completely unreliable. The fire brigade with their hoses always appear for cases of cardiac arrest, and that dreadful voyeuristic television engineer whenever women go into labour –’

‘Bedpan!’ said the matron contemptuously. ‘I offered him one. With my own hands. He waved it away, quite imperiously. His interpreter explained that he could never demean himself by sitting on so ignoble a utensil.’

the Sheikh of Shatt al Shufti, I suppose,’ Sir Lancelot reflected.

‘Was that meant to be a stupid joke?’

‘Good grief, no.’ He chuckled. ‘It was perfectly inadvertent. But rather good, don’t you think?’

‘Have you no sense of shame?’

‘My dear Matron, you must remember that the Sheikh does it like that as a matter of course in his tent, or whatever he lives in at home. A man simply comes along with a pan and a little brush, like you see after the Household Cavalry. We must surely make allowances for foreign customs? The poor denizens of the Middle East have no hospitals of their own. So anyone who feels ill and has the money flies to London. It’s nearer and cheaper than New York, and the nurses are warmer-hearted. Even our own Earl’s Court Angels, whose hearty femininity and spicy language I always think brings a refreshing breeze from the Australian outback to the sickbed. Harrod’s is quite as good as Macy’s and the television programmes are of better quality. We’re inescapably in the invisible export business, Matron. Like Anne Hathaway’s cottage.’

‘And I’m sick to death of it. It’s bad enough with their wives and concubines sleeping all over the floors like bundles of black washing. Roasting whole sheep in the garden –’

‘We enjoy our barbecues –’

‘But we don’t eat the entire entrails and eyes. Now there’s these Africans and Chinese who seem to have all the money in the world descending on us by the hundred, not to mention the French and Italians, who to my mind can be just as coarse and smell just as badly, if different. Not that I’ve anything in the slightest against foreigners as such.’

The matron had gone pinker, and was shaking so violently that Sir Lancelot discerned with disquiet that she was trembling on the brink of tears. Only two items in life disturbed him, a weeping pretty woman and the smell of raw onions. He knew the matron was invaluable and irreplaceable in the Bertram Bunn Wing. He also knew that she was delicate Dresden, easily cracked. He would have to apply the putty.

‘My dear, dear Matron, look at it this way. Once upon a time these Arabs were only too eager to sell us their oil. Or for that matter, their sisters. I remember a remarkable number on offer one evening out in Port Said. Now they have us firmly by the petrol pumps, it’s understandable they should be as beastly arrogant towards us as we used to be towards them. Isn’t it the old British Empire come home to roost? If only we’d sent a gunboat to Mr Mussadiq in his pyjamas twenty-five years ago,’ he sighed. ‘But unfortunately Lord Palmerston is as dead as Queen Anne. And anyway the Americans would never have let us, because they thought the British Empire dreadfully naughty and told Mr Churchill to get rid of it.’

But the matron needed solace warmer than a kiss of history. ‘It’s such a shame, such a waste, that this lovely new wing, crammed with the very latest scientific and medical equipment, should be dragged down to the same standards as everything else in the country. After my years of dedicated nursing, it’s too much.’ Her voice finally shrieked past the pressure-valve of professional decorum. ‘On the floor! Polished parquet!’

She laid her blonde curls against the lapel of Sir Lancelot’s formal black jacket and started to cry.

Sir Lancelot patted her briskly on the back, as though burping a baby. ‘I always like to remember in trying circumstances the words of St Augustine,’ he imparted soothingly. ‘
Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing affright thee, All passeth away, God alone will stay, Patience obtaineth all things

‘Oh, Lancelot! You’re so cultured. Quite unlike the younger doctors.’

‘I have taken to reading in bed since the death of my poor wife.’

‘That must be six months now.’ She dabbed her eyes with a small, plain handkerchief.

‘Near on a year.’

‘How time goes by. I always think that talking to some sympathetic listener about the book you are reading makes it far more interesting.’

Perceiving how the subject of conversation had made a definite change, Sir Lancelot extracted himself from the matron’s arms and nearly from her office almost before she had noticed it.

‘I haven’t finished yet –’ She stopped him in the open doorway. ‘Pip. You know, Philip Chipps. My elder sister’s boy. He’s up for the clinical of his surgery finals tomorrow morning.’

‘I can only wish him the best of British luck.’

‘Now you’re being obtuse.’ She resumed her previous fieriness. ‘You know perfectly well it’s the poor young man’s last chance. You’ve already failed him three times. If he doesn’t pass this one, he’ll be thrown out of St Swithin’s for good and all. You’re all dreadfully unfair on him. He may appear slightly disorganized on the surface, but that comes from a father who seems more interested in his butterfly collection than his practice. Underneath, Pip is dreadfully serious and utterly dedicated to his work.’

‘Possibly. But he suffers a singular disadvantage for a surgeon. He is accident-prone.’

‘That’s of no significance,’ she dismissed the objection. ‘Because once qualified he intends to become a psychiatrist. It’s just like you, Lancelot. You make up your mind you dislike somebody or something, and nothing will budge your opinion. It’s exactly the same about everything else in the hospital, from your cholecystograms to your coffee.’

‘I can recall the exact moment when I formed the view you mention. When discovering it was your nephew who had tucked a hose from the cold tap into my left boot while I was scrubbed up and operating.’

‘That’s another tragedy about poor Pip. He’s so easygoing and good natured he’s easily made a fool of. He was tricked into doing it by that dreadful pair Havens and Raffles – who I am utterly horrified to see are now St Swithin’s housemen. They told Pip you’d ordered it to keep your feet cool.’

‘Such gullibility may equip him splendidly for a career in psychiatry. But an examiner must assume the possibility, however alarming, of him practising hard-headed medicine.’

‘Please see he gets through,’ said the matron, slamming the door.

Sir Lancelot shook his head slowly, picking his way past the engrossed lunchers towards the lifts. Sometimes even his own ironclad personality came within danger of foundering.

BOOK: Doctor On The Job
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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