Andrew Lees is a Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital, London. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the American Academy of Neurology Life Time Achievement Award, the Association of British Neurologist’s Medal, the Dingebauer Prize for outstanding research and the Gowers Medal. He is one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researchers in the world.
In his extraordinary memoir, Mentored by a Madman, Lees explains how William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and troubled drug addict, played an unlikely part in his medical career.
Inside Brazil That Never Was, Lees tells the true story of Colonel Percy Fawcett. Part Amazon travelogue, part memoir, he paints a portrait of an elusive Brazil and a flawed explorer whose doomed mission ruined lives.
His new book, Brainspotting, is a series of brilliant autobiographical essays. Lees takes us on a grand tour of his neurological career, giving the reader insight into the art of listening, observation and imagination that the best neurologists still rely on to heal minds and fix brains.
1. How did William Burroughs most influence your medical career?
In my final year at medical school in 1969 I read Naked Lunch. One night Burroughs spoke to me in a dream and we made a Faustian pact. He would allow me to continue my medical studies and become a doctor provided I paid close attention to his writings. Burroughs wanted to become a psychiatrist but despite his sixth sense he had too many flaws to be a good doctor. However, he had much to teach me when it came to clinical research including a necessity to be a light unto myself, self-experiment and fly crookedly in my curiosity for cures
2. What similarities do you see between yourself and Colonel Fawcett?
When I was a schoolboy I dreamed of dropping off the map deep in the Amazon forest. I read everything I could about the European plant hunters like Bates and Spruce and the Victorian and Edwardian explorers. Colonel Fawcett’s search for a lost Amazon civilisation and his disappearance intrigued me and encouraged me in my dreams about Brazil. When many years study of ‘The Fawcett Papers’ taught me the truth my views changed about him and I came to see him as a tragic failure.
3. Did experimenting with yagé open up a different perspective on medical exploration?
Aldous Huxley believed that psychedelics would be of most value to professors working in universities and that one’s brain needed a certain level of maturity in order to experience their effects. I was in my sixties when I took yagé with the shaman doctor Dona Angelika in Leticia, Colombia. The experience led to a long term change of viewpoint. I was able to break down a number of rigid modes of thinking that had begun to stifle creative thinking and challenge openly things which I had always known to be wrong but been frightened to act upon.
4. Why do you think there has been a reduction in imaginative medical research?
The demise of the ‘little man’ and the maverick clinical researcher is one reason. These people have found it almost impossible to continue to be curious in a system that is rigidly controlled by excessive academic bureaucracy, fear of litigation and risk aversion. I also believe that the excessive worship of technology by laboratory minded clinical scientists and the tendency of science to put all its eggs in one basket have been detrimental. In my field of Parkinson’s disease there have been important advances in our understanding but the best treatment, L-DOPA is over fifty years old.
5. What are you doing to protect the clinical methods of your mentors from extinction?
All I can do is continue to educate the young and involve them so that they will see for themselves that good practice cannot be done remotely and requires face to face consultations. Attentive listening and observing are considered time-consuming non-reimbursable luxuries and hospitals are becoming more and more like factories rather than sanctuaries.
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