Jeremy Laurance: The brilliant medical career this novelist never had

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What sort of doctor would J G Ballard have made? The idea of the author of Crash, his novel about the erotic potential of car accidents, providing medical care to the survivors is distinctly surreal.

He went up to Cambridge in 1949 to study medicine and described his two years in the dissecting room as "among the most important of my life and helped to frame a large part of my imagination."

One of his great themes was indifference – shown by the wealthy in pre-war Shanghai to the poor, by the Japanese prison guards in Lunghua detention camp to the inmates (of whom he was one), and by nations to each other (the holocaust, nuclear war)

What is it that enables people to touch each other emotionally, and, conversely, to be indifferent to that touch – whether in the dissecting room, where, like all nascent doctors, he had to neutralise his emotional response, or at the shocking death of his wife on a family holiday in the 1960s, or at the violence presented as entertainment in the late 20th century?

He wanted to be a psychiatrist and declared his first patient would be himself. Instead, after two years exploring anatomy, he gave it up to become a novelist. "In many ways my entire fiction is the exploration of a deep pathology I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world," he wrote.

My guess is he would have made, like Freud, a lousy doctor but a first class thinker, had his imagination been harnessed to a scientific task. Instead the world got a brilliant, humane novelist whose books have provided the consolations of which psychiatry can only dream.



Indifference was also the subject of a remarkable disciplinary case heard by the Nursing and Midwifery Council last week. In a decision that has caused outrage, Margaret Heywood, 58, a nurse with 20 years experience, was struck off the register for secretly filming patients on a hospital ward for a BBC Panorama programme.

The issue she was keen to expose – successfully, as it turned out – was the appalling indifference shown by the hospital's management to elderly patients left crying for help or in pain. But the disciplinary panel that heard her case considered her own indifference to the rules on confidentiality that govern her profession was the greater sin.

Linda Reid, chair of the panel, must have had an uncomfortable weekend after learning of the reaction to the decision over which she presided. Senior members of the profession wrote to protest and the Royal College of Nursing has launched a petition in support of Ms Heywood.

No one is arguing with the verdict – Ms Heywood admitted her guilt in respect of the breach of confidentiality. But the sentence – removal from the register, effectively ending her career – is widely seen as disproportionate. The irony is that none of the managers responsible for the neglect have been disciplined. Instead, Ms Heywood has taken the rap. The panel has been transfixed by one kind of indifference while neglecting another, far graver kind.

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