Berger, J. A fortunate man: the story of a country doctor

In 1966 John Berger spent three months in the Forest of Dean shadowing an English country GP, John Sassall.

Sassall is a fortunate man – his work occupies and fulfils him, he lives amongst the patients he treats, the line between his life and his work is happily blurred.

In A Fortunate Man, Berger’s text and the photography of Jean Mohr reveal with extraordinary intensity the life of a remarkable man. It is a portrait of one selfless individual and the rural community for which he became the hub. Drawing on psychology, biography and medicine A Fortunate Man is a portrait of sacrifice. It is also a profound exploration of what it means to be a doctor, to serve a community and to heal.

Author: Berger, John
Title: A fortunate man: the story of a country doctor
Publisher: Random House USA Inc
Year: 1997
ISBN: 067973726X

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Comment (Prof John Cookson – HYMS)

Set in the Forest of Dean and a world away from General Practice now.  Some wonderful photographs.  Sadly, the protagonist committed suicide

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2 thoughts on “Berger, J. A fortunate man: the story of a country doctor

  1. Steven Oliver

    John Berger’s recent death (January 2017) prompted me to revisit this extended essay.

    As an earlier post has mentioned it gives an account of a form of single-handed general practice in a then isolated and relatively deprived part of the UK that bears no resemblance to contemporary practice. Whilst there is an interest in the description of practice that Berger witnesses in his six weeks living with Dr Sassall (the fortunate man), the abiding value of the book to me are in the reflections on what a doctor is and what their value and role in a community are – or could be. Berger was an iconoclast – a Marxist intellectual – and along with the celebration of someone who was clearly an excellent and fascinating physician there is also a deep challenge presented in his writing. I think the two following quotes capture some of that for me.

    How is it that Sassall is acknowledged as a good doctor? By his cures? This would seem to be the answer. But I doubt it. You have to be a startlingly bad doctor and make many mistakes before the results tell against you. In the eyes of the layman the results always tend to favour the doctor. No, he is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity. He recognizes them.

    …I would suggest that one of the fundamental reasons why so many doctors become cynical and disillusioned is precisely because, when the abstract idealism has worn thin, they are uncertain about the value of the actual lives of the patients they are treating. This is not because they are callous or personally inhuman: it is because they live in and accept a society which is incapable of knowing what a human life is worth.
    It cannot afford to. If it did, it would either have to dismiss this knowledge and with it dismiss all its pretences to democracy and so become totalitarian: or it would have to take account of this knowledge and revolutionize itself. Either way it would be transformed.

    Reply
  2. David Pearson

    JOHN BERGER

    John Berger, who has just died at the age of 90, was one of our foremost social commentators. His great contribution to medical literature was this magnificent ‘A Fortune Man’, a short but memorable observation of a country GP in Gloucestershire from the early 60s. Whilst reflecting on an era of trust and intimacy in medicine now much diminished it is still a worthwhile read for the beauty of its writing, its profound insight about the nature of the doctor-patient relationship and the strength of that relationship in both diagnosis and healing.
    Treat yourself; if you have any interest in the social side and art of medicine this book will not disappoint.

    David Pearson
    GP & Educator Bridlington
    Hon Professor of Primary Care HYMS

    Reply

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