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As an academic you can become typecast. Your series of papers on, say, the left uterine artery leads to presentations at the European Uterine Society and the International Artery Association. Your talk at local medical meetings is “The left uterine artery: who needs it?” Your lecture for undergraduates is “The crazy world of the left uterine artery.” Sooner or later you get bored and want to speak about something else.
Recently I've rediscovered the pleasure of lecturing on topics I know nothing about. As medical students we did this all the time, mugging up on new subjects and presenting them to the rest of our group. I still remember facts from talks I gave more than 30 years ago. On the receiving end, of course, you recall nothing.
These days it's easier with online library access. No need now for all that hard-won knowledge of the shelf layout in the basement. But the internet doesn't make things quicker. Once you have logged on to the Dictionary of National Biography, a couple of hours can disappear like magic. What an advance, though, to be able to waste time in the middle of the night and at weekends.
Admittedly, it takes a bit of nerve to lecture to women doctors on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or to the Scout Association on Baden-Powell, but audiences are kind when they see you are enjoying yourself. My most challenging assignment so far has been a plenary address to radiotherapists near Vatican City. Steer clear of physics and religion, I decided.
By way of preparation I read the NHS Cancer Plan, unfamiliar territory to obstetricians. In our specialty we're used to the Department of Health trying to hide the fact that doctors take part in pregnancy care, and mentioning obstetricians last in the list of people involved with childbirth. I had assumed that all branches of medicine got the same treatment.
But here was an official document that seemed to value medicine's contribution. To my inexpert eye it looked as if practising doctors had been involved in planning the service. Crikey. What's special about cancer, I realised, is that everyone is against it, so the Department and the doctors are on the same side. Once someone discovers a cure, no doubt things will get back to normal.