|Lonely tree with timber by Anthony Papagiannis|
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) is one of the oldest and most eminent general medical journals. Among its many and varied features is a regular obituaries page. Departed members of all branches of the medical profession, academic teachers, researchers and Nobel Prize winners, hospital and army doctors, and general practitioners, are remembered in this column every week. It is said that this is one of the most popular pages of the BMJ; however, there has been little research into the reasons why.
I suspect the reason may be the similarity of the obituary (OB) to a document familiar to most doctors, the curriculum vitae (CV). An obituary is simply the CV for a long-term appointment in the Memory Department. It aims to put on record all the things that are worth remembering about a person. Like the CV, it tends to stress the positive aspects of a person’s character and the milestones of a professional career. However, at least in the BMJ variety, it often extends into the favorite pastimes, extramural interests, life anecdotes, and little-known non-medical achievements and distinctions of the deceased. This makes it much more interesting to read than a long list of academic postings, erudite publications, and honorary memberships in learned societies.
There is another difference between a CV and an OB. Even though journals generally welcome self-written obituaries, these latter documents are usually written by somebody else, while a CV is almost invariably put together by the applicant in person. Both approaches can present the reader with a biased view. In an obituary, two biographers might draw totally different pictures of a person. And like the blind men attempting to describe the elephant, both of them might be equally correct—or otherwise.
A rich and interesting CV may sway the decision of a selection committee towards appointing its author in the hope that their many talents will be put to good use while the candidate is still alive and active. On the other hand, readers of an obituary are frequently left with a sense of regret that they never appreciated the many facets of a late colleague’s personality. The ancient philosopher and lawmaker Solon the Athenian provoked the wrath and contempt of King Croesus of Lydia when he advised him not to proclaim a man happy until he had witnessed the mode and circumstances of his death. In a similar philosophical vein, we may be destined to know the true value of others only after their departure from this life. By then it is too late for the departed to alter their qualifications, and for the rest of us to show them our appreciation, and benefit from their acquaintance.
Now, having read this, you can turn to the obituaries page and make your shortlist.
ANTHONY PAPAGIANNIS is a practicing pulmonologist in Thessaloniki, Greece. He graduated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Medical School. He trained in Internal Medicine in Greece and subsequently in the United Kingdom, and specialized in Pulmonary Medicine. He also holds a postgraduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine from the University of Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom. He is a postgraduate instructor in palliative medicine in the University of Thessaly, Larissa, Greece. He edits the journal of the Thessaloniki Medical Association, and blogs regularly.