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Sir Herbert Seddon: and the book he nearly didn't write

Julia Merrick pp. 221 London: Fugit Press, 2010 ISBN: 978-0-956574-0-5

Sir Herbert Seddon: And the Book He Nearly Didn't Write is a very important book. It is not only an outstanding portrait of one of the more important figures in 20th century orthopaedics, but is also a compelling description of the development of surgery of the peripheral nerves.

The first chapter describes Seddon's early life from his education at Hulme grammar school (he was inexplicably turned down by Manchester Grammar School) through his studies at Bart's where he won "a fistful of scholarships" and the gold medal of the University of London, to his appointment as Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedics at Oxford in 1940. He had, of course, by this time also been awarded the Robert Jones gold medal of the British Orthopaedic Association.

It was at this point that he was first approached by Charles Macmillan, then manager of E & S Livingstone, the noted Edinburgh publishers, with an offer to publish his forthcoming book on peripheral nerve injuries. The second paragraph of this letter starts "I therefore trust that you will make steady progress in its compilation…". Thereafter progress was certainly steady, but there was the small matter of a World War to be endured, and a large clinical workload to accommodate. In 1948, he moved back to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, taking the Peripheral Nerve Injury unit with him. His London practice flourished and he became increasingly involved in the work of the BOA, leading to his subsequent appointment as president. I am slightly sad that no space could be found for extracts from his 1961 presidential address to the BOA, although it is referenced. His waspish descriptions of various types of surgeon are as apposite today as they were 50 years ago. They should be more widely appreciated.

A whole chapter is devoted to Seddon's care of and personal relationship with Sir Winston Churchill, based on Seddon's own records and those from the Churchill archives. Each man clearly had great regard for the other.

It took Seddon 30 years to deliver his book, Surgical Disorders of the Peripheral Nerves. The correspondence between Seddon and Macmillan, which forms a considerable part of the book, not only remained cordial but is a remarkable record of the friendship which developed between the two men. Unsurprisingly, when the book finally appeared, it was hailed as a masterpiece.

After reading this book I was left wondering what prompted Julia Merrick to undertake her researches in the first place. While she generously acknowledges all those who have helped her to prepare this volume, there is no biography of the author nor any indication as to what drew her to the life and work of Sir Herbert Seddon in the first place. While a degree of reserve is always attractive, I felt very slightly cheated by not being informed about the relationship between the author and her subject. This, however, is hardly a criticism. This book should be read, probably repeatedly, by anyone with an interest in surgery of the peripheral nerves and certainly by anyone who has ever passed through the Nuffield Department in Oxford or the RNOH. It will also be of solace to any writer who has ever missed a deadline for the delivery of an abstract, paper, chapter or book.

Finally, this is not just a book about Sir Herbert Seddon: it also charts the rise and contributions of other great men in the field of peripheral nerve surgery: Donal Brooks, George Bonney and Philip Yeoman among others. Rolfe Birch contributes an elegant introduction and, appropriately, has the last word; his contribution to the surgery of peripheral nerves is of a later generation and must await another author to write it as splendidly as Julia Merrick has that of Sir Herbert Seddon.

A. Ross

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