john macfarlandJonathan Mcfarland (Poems by John Mcfarland)

“In him, we cannot easily discern separate medical and humanistic sensibilities” (Joanne Trautmann describing William Carlos Williams)

John McFarland was born into a medical family in Liverpool in 1930. His father was an orthopaedic surgeon and mother a paediatrician. He later studied medicine in his home town and proceeded to have a very successful career as a general surgeon.

Even though the facts paint a straightforward story I truly believe that he was always torn between the arts and science, and here are some of the reasons that we might consider him a medical humanist:

  • He always said that he studied medicine because he loved people, thinking that it was the best way to discover more about them.
  • He was deeply passionate about all the Arts, but his main loves were Paintings and Poetry, his greatest friends were normally artists or poets, and from an early age to his death he painted and wrote poetry.
  • In fact, he had considered architecture before medicine and, as a medical student, he also went to Art School classes.
  • He was one of the first to introduce painting into hospitals, and in the late 1970s he commissioned leading British artists to paint murals at his own teaching hospital.
  • After an early retirement he spent three winters teaching and operating at a tiny fisherman’s hospital in Cochin, Kerala in India, another of his lifelong loves.


The surgeon said “It’s an ulcer.

But you’re fortunate, we can cut it away”.

They laid me on my back.

The knife was clean, I suppose, unforgiving.

and afterwards there was great pain

and someone else’s blood dripping into me.

I thought of you and my heart turned.

I wished to see you sitting in the sun,

to run my hand lightly down your back

and think those things that one thinks

in the warm afternoon.

There were those days walking together,

you will remember them,

when it was you and the sky

in those warm us-days

and we crossed the clear, pebbled streams,

always your hand in mine.

The microscope confirmed the diagnosis.

But there’s no need to worry,

they have cut it all away.

“Crab” was written in the 1980’s when he was practising medicine, and it is a personal reflection on breast cancer, which was one of his specialties.


Sing of Africa the fierce, Light and shade, trees and jungle.

Care for those who care for these things,

The dark people who to the river come and go

Where murky waters slide through mud and crocodiles.

At this place occurs, one day, a disastrous battle;

A crocodile drags a screaming girl towards the strand

Where villagers attempt to save her, just alive.

Her bones now pierce her skin, also periosteum

Which send to her brain messages of fear and pain.

Her mangled leg will not destroy her but foreshadows death.

For three weeks, infection stemmed, she does not die,

She waits.

The plane, with steady throb, dips through the silent clouds.

The pilot, old time adventurer, right hand severed in the past,

Jams his stump into the controls, a three-point landing.

The girl, leg splinted Tobruk style, is lifted to the tiny plane.

The pilot turns his craft and takes off towards the hills.

He reaches back to check a flapping door and finds, writhing in agony, The girl who must be tended. I inject her arm,

Prepare to sit out the night with the bundle of my keeping.

Suddenly her breathing stops, she’s pulseless, damp and cold,

I who put the morphia in cannot take it out.

Nor does the dawn which splits the night give any comfort.

The pilot from his cockpit, flickering green, says,

“We’ll sight Nyeri Station soon, not far ahead”.

Above, the omnipresent vultures gyre, raiders for Zoroaster,

They cast no patterns in the air, nor plane a shadow on the sand.

We home in on the runway, draw up beside the kerosene flares,

Many pilots receive some small applause for this, but reaching back

We find a twisted ghost just breathing, a heart just pumping.

When death is fragile prepare for life.

She is alive. It is enough.

The hospital built, no doubt, so man himself could salve

The ills of life, is near.

There the surgeon, supple fingers, agile knife,

Stabs the pus to find more pus, all anatomy corrupted.

Gently the blade moves in, the leg is eased away.

Thus, without a poisoned limb to drag down the bloody show,

The healing process may begin.

“A matter of opportunity” was specifically written for a poetry prize, about a year before he died in 2013. Here, he looks back in hindsight to an event that happened when he was serving in the army as a doctor in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising in the early nineteen fifties. This war made a big impact on his life, and interestingly enough, he was employed as an anaesthetist.


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