James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken


Portrait of James Le Fanu

James Le Fanu is a doctor, columnist and historian of science and medicine. He studied the humanities at Ampleforth College before switching to medicine, graduating from Cambridge University and the Royal London Hospital in 1974. He subsequently worked in the Renal Transplant Unit at the Royal Free and Cardiology Department at St Mary’s Hospital.

For the past twenty years he has combined medical practice with writing a twice weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph as well as contributing reviews and articles to The Times, Spectator, Prospect, The Oldie, The British Medical Journal and Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. His much acclaimed ‘The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine’ won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 2014. He is married to the publisher Juliet Annan, has two children Frederick and Allegra and lives in South London.

Recent Publications

His most recent book ‘Too Many Pills’ investigates the reasons behind the threefold rise in the number of prescriptions issued by doctors over the past fifteen years and the devastating consequences for many of a ‘hidden epidemic' of drug induced illness.

The number of prescriptions issued by family doctors has soared threefold in just fifteen years with millions now committed to taking a cocktail of half a dozen (or more) different pills to lower the blood pressure and sugar levels, statins, bone strengthening and cardio protective drugs. In ‘Too Many Pills’, doctor and writer James Le Fanu examines how this progressive medicalisation of people’s lives now poses a major threat to their health and wellbeing, responsible for a hidden epidemic of drug induced illness (muscular aches and pains, lethargy, insomnia, impaired memory and general decrepitude), a sharp increase in the number of emergency hospital admissions for serious side effects and implicated in the recently noted decline in life expectancy.

The origins of this medical catastrophe go back to the 1970’s and the immensely profitable shift in the marketing strategy of the pharmaceutical industry in favour of ‘selling to everyone’. Extrapolating from the certain benefits of treating those at high risk of stroke, heart attacks, diabetes and other illnesses, the drug companies have targeted the much greater numbers of the healthy redefining the normal as abnormal, exaggerating up to fifty fold the results of clinical trials designed to demonstrate the need to take medicines indefinitely. This policy of mass medicalisation is now deeply entrenched in routine medical practice with family doctors financially incentivised to prescribe, their income dependent on their success in hitting targets of the proportion of their patients on treatment.

The paradoxically harmful, if increasingly well recognised, consequences of too much medicine are illustrated by the remarkable personal testimony of the readers of James Le Fanu’s weekly medical column, coerced into taking drugs they do not need, debilitated by their adverse effects – and their almost miraculous recovery on discontinuing them. The only solution, he argues, is for the public to take the initiative. His review of the relevant evidence for the efficacy, or otherwise, of commonly prescribed drugs should allow readers of ‘Too Many Pills’ to ask much more searching questions about the benefits and risks of the medicines they are taking.

‘Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves’ investigates the paradox where the major developments in genetics (including the Human Genome Project) and neuroscience of the past two decades have inadvertently revealed the limits of an exclusively scientific account of the form and attributes of the living world and the exceptionality of the human mind.

His (much acclaimed) ‘The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine’ charts the change in fortunes of medicine over the past sixty years from the supreme achievements of its ‘Twelve Definitive Moments’ to its current discontents. The ‘Fully Revised and Updated’ second edition includes an epilogue ‘Ten Years On’ exploring the major developments of the last decade.

Medicine has become the most visible symbol of the fulfillment of the great Enlightenment Project where scientific progress would vanquish the twin perils of ignorance and disease to the benefit of all. And yet the more powerful and prestigious it has become, the greater the impetus to extend its influence further, resulting in the progressive ‘medicalisation’ of people’s lives to no good purpose… this takes many forms from the over investigation and over treatment of minor symptoms to the inappropriate use of life-sustaining technologies, anxiety mongering about trivial (or non existent) threats to health and people’s everyday lives, and the propagation of unreasonable expectations about what the current state of medical research can reasonably be expected to achieve.”

Have we discovered it all? (Daily Telegraph) investigates the current state of medical research and notes “the more generous its funding, the more daunting the tidal wave of articles in academic journals, the more striking the paradox that the rate of medical innovation—discoveries that really make a difference—is a fraction of what it was thirty or forty years ago.”

Science’s Dead End (Prospect Magazine) considers the prospects for further scientific advance in the wake of the supreme intellectual achievement of the past sixty years in permitting us, for the first time, to ‘hold in our mind’s eye’ the entire history of the universe from the moment of the Big Bang until yesterday.

Aping Mankind (The Tablet) and Metaphysics Resurgent (Brain). These two extended book reviews consider first the philosopher Raymond Tallis’s critique of the prevailing reductionist account of the human experience and, secondly, the implications of the most recent findings in genetics and neuroscience for the troubled relationship between science and religion.

Profitable Wonders. This popular series on the ‘wonders’ of biology, natural history and related subjects appears monthly in The Oldie magazine—featuring the murmuration of starlings, the regenerative powers of the salamander, the ‘miracle’ of homeostasis, the marvels of skin and the heart and the extraordinary attributes of the living world from bacteria to elephants via the earthworm and the humming bird.

To contact James, please email james.lefanu@btinternet.com.