28 July 2023

Prepared by: Retage Al-Bader, MD Candidate (2025) – Education Co-Lead

Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario; aalbader@uwo.ca 

Exploring the World of Neurosurgery: Essential Books for Medical Students

This blog-post is dedicated to sharing neurosurgery-related books to medical students interested in neurosurgery. We’ve gathered some insightful books that delve into the fascinating world of neurosurgery. Whether you are interested in neurosurgery in particular, medicine in general, or even simply interested in a great book, these recommended reads are sure to provide valuable insights, inspiration, and a deeper understanding of this complex field. 

*Please note that all content on this blogpost is information of a general nature. CaMSIGN is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with any of the mentioned books, authors, nor publishers.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Approaching the final years of neurosurgical residency, Dr Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. He shares his journey into medicine, residency training, and his experience receiving a life-altering diagnosis. This is a thoughtful, inspiring, and eloquent memoir on life, facing mortality, and purpose, as he seeks to understand ‘what makes a meaningful and virtuous life?’ This is a book that is easy to connect with on various levels, providing an opportunity to reflect on life’s fragility, practicing resilience, and how you find value in your current goals.

“Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Dr. Henry Marsh

Dr. Henry Marsh is a UK-based neurosurgeon who candidly shares his experience navigating critical decision making in neurosurgery, balancing the responsibility of minimizing harm in the pursuit of helping patients have a better quality of life. He offers readers a window into the impact his career as a neurosurgeon has had on his life. With remarkable honesty, he shares stories of mistakes and failures, in addition to some of the triumphs that sustain his motivation and wonder towards neurosurgery. He reflects on the importance of humility and compassion when navigating the uncertainties and difficulties of his profession.

This read gives a balanced perspective on neurosurgery, allowing the reader to get a sense of the weight of decision-making in neurosurgery while also sharing glimpses of its triumphs.

“Life without hope is hopelessly difficult but at the end hope can so easily make fools of us all.”

“The operating is the easy part…By my age you realize that the difficulties are all to do with the decision-making.”

“Surgeons must always tell the truth but rarely, if ever, deprive patients of all hope. It can be very difficult to find the balance between optimism and realism.”

“Some of my operations are great triumphs and tremendous. But they’re only triumphs because there are also disasters.”

Admissions: A life in Brain Surgery, by Dr. Henry Marsh

Approaching retirement after four decades as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Marsh reflects on pivotal experiences during his career that shaped the neurosurgeon he’s become, such as his pro bono work in Ukraine and Nepal. He details the sense of responsibility that comes with neurosurgery and trying to help ease the suffering of his patients, and the highs and lows that come with it.

This book is recommended because of the honest reflections Dr. Marsh shares as he takes you through his journey starting from a medical student to neurosurgeon.

“I have learnt that handling the brain tells you nothing about life – other than to be dismayed by its fragility.”

“Sometimes, if you are to make the right decisions, you have to accept that you might be wrong.”

“The only meaning of death is how I live my life now and what I will have to look back upon as I lie dying.”

And Finally: Matters of Life and Death, by Dr. Henry Marsh

The latest memoir by retired neurosurgeon Dr. Marsh details his diagnosis of advanced cancer and reflects on his experience going from doctor to patient. He shares thoughtful and innermost reflections on his life, mortality, and past mistakes, and what makes for a meaningful and well-lived life.

While sharing insight into a patient’s perspective navigating illness and healthcare, this book also invites important reflection on fulfillment through one’s own life, work, and goals.

“As a neurosurgeon, I lived in a world filled with fear and suffering, death and cancer. But rarely, if ever, did I think about what it would be like if what I witnessed at work every day happened to me. This book is the story of how I became a patient myself.”

Cutting a Path: The Power of Purpose, Discipline, and Determination, Dr. Sheri Dewan

Dr. Sheri Dewan reflects on the highs and lows of her journey to become one of two hundred female neurosurgeons in the United States, sharing insightful anecdotes and practical advice. This is a motivational guide on the power of setting goals, maintaining focus, and overcoming obstacles to carve out a path towards personal and professional fulfillment.

“When the world tests you, do you have what it takes to shut out the noise, check in with yourself, and follow your passion?”



When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery, by Dr. Frank Vertosick Jr.

Dr. Vertosick chronicles his journey through residency, going from intern to a successful neurosurgeon. He highlights memorable cases over the years that showcase neurosurgery’s challenges and triumphs, while sharing poignant moments he encountered in the operating room. He also reflects on the emotional, intellectual, and physical demands faced by neurosurgeons. From intricate surgeries to complex ethical dilemmas, this book offers a glimpse into the high-stakes nature of brain surgery and the human stories that come with it.

This is considered one of the must-read books for anyone interested in medicine, especially neurosurgery and complexities of the human brain.

“Facts matter a great deal. What a patient does for a living, what his background is, what level of education he has achieved…all of these issues must be addressed in great detail in order to put his complaints and his disease in the proper context.”

“My fatigue was growing, but I could not show weakness. If it was easy, anybody could do it.”

“Failure instructs better than success”

All That Moves Us, by Dr. Jay Wellons

This is a ​​poignant and uplifting book that delves into the world of pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Jay Wellons, who shares his experience treating young patients facing neurological diseases. He reflects on their resilience at times of hardship, and the importance of hope, compassion, and determination when treating his patients.

“The reality of life and death choices quickly burns away any idealized idea of invincibility.”

“It is not a surprise that we are all fragile. None more so than the littlest among us. The dark and unknown that we all face make us more so. But life wants to live, and I have learned that we are also extraordinarily resilient. None more so than the littlest among us. A child comes to us with a particular problem that requires intervention on the most sacred part of their being, the brain or spinal cord, those parts that make us essentially human. I most often feel that operating on them has had the effect of making me more essentially human, that as much as I have healed, I have been healed.”

Becoming a Neurosurgeon, by John Colapinto

Written by journalist John Colapinto, this book explores the daily life of neurosurgeon Dr. Joshua Bederson. Dr. Bederson is the chief of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Colapinto explores multiple facets of Dr. Bederson’s professional life, ranging from his role as a neurosurgeon, teacher/mentor, and researcher. This offers a portrait of an expert working in their field, how they achieved that, and the lessons gleaned from such an inspiring and successful journey.

“I can’t complain… I wanted to do this, and nothing but this, since I was a teenager…I just fell in love with the brain.”

“Amazing to think that that blobby matter is everything that makes us us’”

“Much of neurosurgery is knowing when to leave well enough alone”

The Tenth Nerve, by Chris Honey

This memoir by Dr. Chris Honey explores his journey as he becomes a neurosurgeon at Vancouver General Hospital. He shares personal anecdotes in addition to memorable and meaningful patient stories. He also reflects on the meaning of quality of life, as he eventually befriends one of his former patients. He admiringly reflects on his patients’ courageous spirit as they navigate various illnesses, including unfamiliar ones. He also offers a unique perspective on global neurosurgery as he shares about his time operating in Liberia.

“The scalpel can only go so deep, and technical skill can only take one so far.”

“Saika, the remarkable nine-month old boy in Liberia who suffered with such a quiet dignity, taught me we can fail as physicians, but we must always try and help.”

The Healing Blade: A Tale of Neurosurgery, by Edward J. Sylvester

This book is written from the perspective of a science journalist as he spends years following neurosurgeons at a neurological institute. He follows neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler and staff at the Barrow Neurological Institute. Sylvester shares illustrative cases that show the challenges and triumphs of modern neurosurgery.

“It’s so fascinating … when you are talking about the brain, you are talking about the self–whatever it is, there it is.” – Edward J. Sylvester



No Man Alone: A Neurosurgeon’s Life, by Dr. Wilder Penfield

This autobiography showcases the life of neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield. Dr. Penfield was a renowned American-Canadian neurosurgeon who made significant contributions in the field of epilepsy and neurophysiology research. Dr. Penfield also founded the Montreal Neurological Institute.

“This was a lonely project. But perhaps there is, in all research, a time when a man is all alone and must struggle against his own doubts. Even when he holds to his course, doubts go along with him and mingle with the questions at the back of his mind. But as I have said, we have burned our bridges. I could only explore now. Most explorers are thought to be mad by someone, and all explorers are lonely. Perhaps a touch of madness is a help – that and the knowledge that someone, like Dulcinea, believes in you.”

“It has always been my belief that, for everyone who is ready and willing, there is a place. it seems to wait for him or her, in some good human cause… And yet I know that, beyond it all, there is an everlasting purpose, and within each one of us there is that lonely something that links us with Divinity. The link is there, to be used or disregarded. Each must make his own choice.”

Yasargil: Father of Modern Neurosurgery (Dr. M. Gazi Yasargil’s biography, written by Dr. Larry Rogers)

Dr. M. Gazi Yasargil is recognized as the “Father of Modern Neurosurgery” for his groundbreaking contributions to micro-neurosurgery. Born in a cave in rural Turkey with his family held at gunpoint, his journey eventually led to him as a young adult in Nazi Germany dealing with hindrances to his medical studies.

Eventually, as a neurosurgeon in the 1960s, he pioneered advancements in microscopes and surgical instruments to allow for better precision in neurosurgery, reducing mortality rates from 30% to less than 2%. This book will give readers an appreciation of Dr. Yasargil’s eventful journey into neurosurgery and the challenges he faced, in addition to the commitment and dedication that goes into leading such paradigm shifts that shaped the field of modern neurosurgery.

This biography is written from the perspective of Dr. Larry Rogers, a microvascular neurosurgeon, who even learned under Dr. Yasargil’s tutelage during residency training.

“Yasargil was as sensitive with the man’s family as he was with every patient’s family. He shook hands with each of them, bowing and looking into their eyes.”

“Dr. Yasargil had to face derision at the hands of the established titans, and his dogged perseverance led to the development of a unique personality. Thus, he would accept nothing but the best, pursuing his dreams with an uncompromising commitment, and having the keenness to develop skills that were matching his own.”

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