The Story of The Medicine Men (1975) – the book that changed my life

The world of publishing is as dominated by the vicissitudes of fortune, serendipity if you like, as the world of show business and the one thing I learned very early on in my life is that there are three ways to prepare. The first is to network – to meet people, to talk to them, to give them your name and all your phone numbers and to sell yourself. The second is to ensure that as many possible discover your work – in the hope that someone will remember your book or your name when commissioning an author for a new project. And the third is to wait and hope.

I have always been entirely useless at networking and early on in my career I relied entirely on literary agents to do the networking for me. At various times in my career I have sent books off in the hope that they would be read by people who might find them of some interest. But for the last few decades I have relied entirely on happenchance.

The Medicine Men was my first book and it came into life entirely by happenchance. Early in my twenties I wrote regularly for the Daily Telegraph magazine which, in those days, appeared with the Friday edition of the newspaper. (The magazine later moved, lock stock and barrel, to the Sunday Telegraph where I continued to work for it for a while until I became a tabloid columnist.)

Several of my early columns for the Telegraph magazine were about healthcare and drug companies and the uncomfortably close relationship between the medical profession and the drug industry. And one day, quite out of the blue, I received a letter from a literary agent asking me if I had thought of turning the articles into a book.

In response to the agent’s invitation I wrote an outline for a book and she sold the idea to a publisher called Maurice Temple Smith who had an eponymous publishing firm in Bloomsbury in London. The Temple Smith offices were opposite the British Museum and a few doors away from Tommy Cooper’s favourite magic store and the offices were reached up a narrow staircase which was, I seem to remember, bare wooden treads. As with many publishers at that time very little money had been spent on superficialities.

Maurice Temple Smith was an old fashioned publisher; one of the old school, and he was to publish my first three books.

The Medicine Men was the first book to attack the drug industry and the first to draw attention to the relationship with the medical profession. It was more successful than any of us expected. The Guardian newspaper bought serial rights, a couple of foreign publishers bought rights and the BBC made a 14 minute film to their early evening news programme. Arrow books bought the paperback rights and Book Club Associates (BCA) produced a book club edition for their members. The book received great reviews from the national press and a number of weekly and monthly magazines. The only bad reviews appeared in medical journals – all of which relied heavily on drug company advertising. Several doctor friends told me that if I carried on in the same vein I would have no medical career. They were clearly right. I have never taken kindly to threats or bullying and I ignored all the warnings I received. I’m still not sure that was a wise move. Still, it was too late. The book was published. As far as the medical establishment was concerned I was public enemy number one.

Financially, the book didn’t do so well. My advance, and the money I received from foreign publishers, paperbackers and The Guardian didn’t cover the £750 I paid to have the manuscript typed and the £1,000 I paid to buy libel insurance. (It was the only time I ever bought libel insurance for a book of mine.) In addition, I paid thousands of pounds to specialist medical libraries to photocopy scientific journal articles.

After the book came out I remember that a drug company offered to pay for me to go on a national speaking tour. I was rather surprised at this since the book is a pretty tough attack on the relationship between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. I realised, however, that the offer was merely an attempt to buy my voice.

I said ‘no’.

And I became a marked man.

I don’t think anyone had ever taken on both the pharmaceutical industry and the medical establishment before. Certainly, no doctor had ever done so. When The Medicine Men came out I was a young GP, just starting out in practice and full of the hope, innocence and zeal that is only ever found among 20-year-olds. I’d forgotten how much courage it took me to write the book. I was well aware that I could be sued (even with the libel insurance that could have been expensive) and that I risked being struck off the medical register. But, apart from some threats from one or two members of the British Medical Association (speaking on behalf of their drug industry paymasters) nothing much happened though it soon became clear that my world was never going to be as simple or as straightforward as it had been.

There was a hardback edition, a Book Club edition and a mass market paperback edition (published by Arrow) but The Medicine Men has been out of print for many years now.

However, I’ve now just published a new paperback edition. It’s available through the bookshop on this website. As with many of my books there is no eBook I’m afraid. I wish it were possible.