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Durham University

Department of English Studies


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Publication details for Professor Jane Macnaughton

Macnaughton, J. (2015). ‘Elegant’ Surgery: The Beauty of Clinical Expertise. In The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine. Saunders, C., Macnaughton, J. & Fuller, D. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. 175-198.

Author(s) from Durham


Reflecting on his life as a neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh describes the experience that set him out on his career: observing an operation on an aneurysm in the brain. ‘The operation was elegant, dangerous and full of profound meaning. What could be finer, I thought, than to be a neurosurgeon?’1 Approaching the theme of this collection — beauty in relation to notions of recovery — from my perspective as a clinician, I kept coming back to the word that is, as here, surprisingly in common use by surgeons to refer to technical work that they admire: ‘elegance’. I wondered where it came from, what it means for surgery to be ‘elegant’, why the language of aesthetics is used for technical processes. I was also interested in what this word says about the doctor who is described as exercising ‘elegant’ skills, and about the implications of this descriptor for the relationship between clinician and the patient. There is a coolness about the word ‘elegance’, and I have previously written with others about the idea of ‘cool intimacy’ in relation to clinical examination.2 Elegance may be important to the surgeon but not necessarily to the patient. For the patient what matters for recovery is that the surgery is effective. I wondered whether, in using this word in relation to surgical procedures, most surgeons were not necessarily thinking of effectiveness but more of a certain knacky skill or ingenious way of doing something.

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