I am a man—nothing human is alien to me
Robert Winston talks about his path into medicine and gives some advice to medical students
Robert Winston is the professor of science and society and emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College. He is a life peer, doctor, a scientist, a television presenter, an author, and a politician. He holds 17 honorary doctorates, is a Faraday Medal holder and has countless additional awards and honours, including one for theatre. He is involved in many other activities and is the founder of the Genesis Research Trust. He is commonly regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on in vitro fertilisation, and believes in engaging the public with science, demonstrated by his books, television programmes, and initiatives for engaging children and others in science. He is also an avid Arsenal fan.
Can you tell us about your path into medicine, including the period you left medicine to become a theatre director?
I originally wanted to read English but I did the wrong A levels, so I studied natural sciences at Cambridge but found it boring and at the time I didn’t—ironically—want to look down a microscope for the rest of my life. I thought I wanted to help people and medicine seemed to be an answer.
I scraped through my medical exams—nobody would have believed I would end up a professor of medicine; indeed, it was far less likely than Arsenal winning the championship this year.
Having made it through medical school, I was put off during the first couple of years by the authoritarianism of doctors. I could tell you some horrendous stories of egotism and attitudes that jeopardised patients, and I just felt it wasn’t for me. At this time I was producing plays, a passion of mine, so I took a pathology job, which I enjoyed, and worked there until I was secure enough to give up medicine. I became an award winning theatre director.
However I returned to medicine. Despite the fact that I have a lot of respect for actors, I felt that a proportion of them were self absorbed and dealt extravagantly with trivial pain. I wanted to deal with real pain. I applied for medical jobs but found this difficult, but got lucky and was accepted to a job at the mecca of research in Hammersmith hospital, and I managed to get a Medical Research Council grant.
Terrence, a Latin poet, wrote “I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.” It’s a fantastic quotation for medics, because it says that all experience is useful to a medic. Turns out theatre was great for me as it enabled me to interact with patients better, and to have sensitivities that helped me to guide patients through difficult things. My work in the pathology lab was a godsend because it gave me a head start when it came to research and membership exams.
Should medical students be involved in research?
Research is not something I think medical students should get involved in. I think that they need to live. Time at university is meant for you to develop yourself—I refer you back to the Terrence quote.
I am concerned about medical students as I feel they are being forced into a profession that requires less and less contact with the people they are treating. We are often looking at results from a lab before we deal with the patient. But there is so much evidence that the conversation with the patient is a key aspect—it is hugely therapeutic and under-rated.
Furthermore, the medical course has become immensely intense, which requires a huge retention of knowledge that will become redundant within a year or two of working.
The government won’t like me saying this. The NHS, our employer, is deeply antagonistic to good medicine, and corrupts the good intentions of good doctors. If you decide you want to spend more time with a patient because you want to talk to them, that doesn’t go down well with colleagues. There are increasing contractual obligations, meaning you are treated as a contractual worker rather than a high performing professional, and there is much less flexibility. Let’s not forget the benefits of this—it enables the government to some extent to ensure quality control—but this is at the loss of imagination, innovation, and flexibility.
Any advice for someone considering academic medicine or obstetrics and gynaecology?
One must recognise that a dual qualification is highly desirable in academic medicine. You need a PhD—which is difficult to achieve after five years of undergraduate study and a busy clinical job.
Obstetrics and gynaecology is a lovely specialty—you’re largely dealing with quite well patients and it’s a broad specialty with surgery, general medicine, psychosocial, and family medicine aspects. Also, lots more research is needed in this area—in particular to do with public health. Public health has to start with obstetrics and gynaecology, as we now know about the importance of epigenetics. As such, it is an exciting specialty to be getting involved in.
You have a good relationship with One Direction, can you tell us about this please?
I know Harry Styles the best, and the reason for this is because my youngest son directed their recent film. My son knows them well and they asked him to direct it.Thomas Lemon, final year medical student
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: not commissioned; not externally reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f7203