Liam Farrell: Thanks for nothing, science

The Society of Medical Writers meets every year, and it is not like other medical gatherings. No one is trying to get ahead (because, let's face it, it's a dead-end job and no-one is going anywhere anyway) and no one is trying to suck up to anyone else; in the small yet dull world of the medical columnist there are no princes.

Liam Farrell

We basically sit up all night drinking and telling funny stories about patients, although the bonhomie can be rather forced. We are resentful and jealous of each other and a good column by Mary Selby can put me off my dinner. But over the years, I have found a few role models (which is why I have turned out so well), such as Michael O'Donnell and Theodore Dalrymple (probably not his real name).

In Theodore Dalrymple's 'Mass Listeria', he describes the death of King Philip of Spain. In the sixteenth century, give or take a century, Philip would have been the most powerful and privileged person on the planet, yet his death was prolonged and agonising, his symptoms untouchable and unalleviated.

Dalrymple spares us no details, and points out that, now, even the most deprived person in Western society would not have had to endure such a degree of suffering.

We live lives of unprecedented luxury and comfort, and much longer than nature had ordained. Ten thousand years ago, with the same DNA we have now, we were lucky to see 40. No woman lived to see the menopause, and all the great epidemics of our age - cancers, heart disease and dementia - occur because we were not designed to live this long. (To digress, I read somewhere that only one other mammal has a menopause, apparently some kind of seal. Could this be true?).

Science has gifted us these years. Not medical science, I hasten to add, with the possible exception of mass vaccination programmes, but rather improvements in lifestyle such as sanitation and diet; having enough to eat is obviously a sign of progress.

But do we bask in the happiness brought by these advances? Do we give thanks every day that nearly all children will now reach their fifth birthday.

No chance. We are surly and ungrateful, and now consider perfect health to be an immutable right. And if we don't get it, someone must be to blame.

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