MENTORED BY A MADMAN is not your average scientific autobiography. But then Andrew Lees, its author, is not your average neuroscientist.
Trained as a physician at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel (as was James Parkinson himself), and as a neurologist at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital (the domain of Jean Martin Charcot), he was director of the clinical neurology department at Queen Square from 1998 until his recent retirement. Not surprisingly, his more than seven hundred research papers and sixty review articles have made him the world’s most widely cited Parkinson’s researcher.
So, on the face of it, very much a mainstream, if glittering, academic career. A dusty academic perhaps, quietly treading the steps between laboratory and library?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Lees is a prolific writer with a string of books to his name, some predictable, others less so. Leave aside, for a moment, his books on Parkinson’s (1982), Alzheimer’s (2012) and tics (1985), all of which can be broadly considered within the direct path of his career. Lees is a Scouser. Go back to the city of his birth and you see why his book on Ray Kennedy, the famous Liverpool midfielder who developed Parkinson’s at 35 must have been a labour of love. Of course his fondness for Liverpool is broader still and The Hurricane Port, his psychosocial history of Liverpool is as vivid a portrayal as you will find of this most colourful of cities.
So what of this book, Mentored by a Madman?
The cover itself – black cloth, with imprinted bronze lettering and a quotation from the American writer Bill Burroughs – sets the tone. This is an elegant collection of memoirs from one of the UK’s finest neurologist/neuroscientists over the last half-century. But there is so much more to the book than that. Certainly, Lees covers most of the key peaks in his academic career, and those peaks are very high, but that is not really what the book is about. This is a book about the relationship of hypothesis and experiment, of ideas and the means of testing them.
And this is where Bill Burroughs comes in. Burroughs is Lees’s mentor, the madman of the title. Not in a direct face to face way – Burroughs and Lees never met – but in a very real way nonetheless, Burroughs was, for Lees, the teacher described by Henry Adams when he said “A great teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
Burroughs’s main influence on Lees was perhaps twofold – firstly to inspire a sense of life as personal adventure, and, secondly, to blur the boundaries between cultural and scientific endeavour, battlelines drawn by another scientist-writer, CP Snow, in The Two Cultures. And, in Andrew Lees, Burroughs may have found his ideal pupil. Lees can write. This book more than any he has previously written is testament to his ability to mix influences, to magpie pick ideas from disparate sources and to assemble all into a compelling literary whole. This book is less a statement of certainties and knowledge and more of ideas and hypotheses.
But what of Parkinson’s disease? Is this a book about Parkinson’s disease? Yes, in part, it is. But in many parts, that’s almost irrelevant. The early use of L-dopa is described along with work on apomorphine, two drugs largely pioneered by Andrew Lees. Even if your interest is solely Parkinson’s, there is plenty here to engage and interest. Lees tells a compelling story. A story of molecules and men.
At the same time Lees asks a lot of his readers. And if you want to get the most out of the book, you need to be up to speed on more than just The Naked Lunch. This is a book that will challenge your thinking, almost a scrapbook of ideas tumbling onto the page. Quotations and discussions of Bill Burroughs are everywhere. This is not just the world of William Burroughs – this is Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Lees may have written the first ever ‘beat’ memoir by a scientist!
If the book has a clear emphasis it is not upon the people as such but upon their interactions. Progress is not the points but the lines between them, the journeys not the destinations. And this book is full of wonderful journeys.
If I may end this review on an idea, it is an almost throwaway sentence in the chapter Looking for Clues where he talks about the complex physician-patient relationship and how critically diagnosis depends on knowing when to speak and when to listen. Patients were my main teachers, Lees says. And there it is in five words – the simple understanding that is the difference between being good at your chosen profession and being one of the greats.