Dr Chris Allen

Interview by GEMMA CUMMINS | Portrait by Paul Cash

A career highlight Realising, about 15 years after being appointed a Consultant Neurologist at Addenbrooke’s and five years after being appointed Clinical Dean in the University of Cambridge, that there was no place I would rather be in my career. I was a clinician working in a world class research centre, surrounded by the stimulation of young research students and clinical students and yet still spending much of my time in direct contact with patients.

Biggest regret That I probably never will write that novel, otherwise I refer readers to Edith Piaf.

Inspiring mentor Michael Harrison (at the Middlesex hospital), probably the best Neurologist of his generation and certainly the nicest, he inspired me in many ways personally and neurologically.

Most memorable patient There have been many, memorable for different reasons. One lasting impression was left by a patient with metastatic cancer I met as a clinical student. He said “I hope you’re not going to tell me I only have months to live, because some idiot of a doctor told me that 4 years ago!” This taught me never to specify any person’s lifespan…doctors are usually wrong when they try to guess how long someone has to live.

If I hadn’t been a neurologist When I was 10 years old, admiring my father, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. At school I was mainly interested in literature and art but good at biology, so medicine seemed to be a good practical choice. At various stages as an undergraduate I wanted to be a Psychiatrist, a Paediatrician and General Physician (internist) in that order (I never saw myself as a Surgeon). I only decided to commit to being a neurologist after nearly five years working post qualification in various medical specialties including two years as a general medical registrar. Already having an intellectual interest in the brain I realised that in neurology I would be able to practice the clinical method in its ultimately satisfying form, now aided by increasingly sophisticated neuroscience and imaging. Remember I started as a medical undergraduate the year levodopa was introduced as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease and qualified in the year CT imaging of the brain was introduced into clinical practice.

I now see that if I hadn’t become a neurologist I would have been very disappointed with my life (unless I had written that novel).

Hidden talent Having so few I prefer not to hide any talent I think I have!

Advice to budding Charcots (ie trainee neurologists) Never let someone else direct your career, believe in yourself but check your ambitions against reality. Try to end up doing something you are good at rather than something you wish you were good at. Disappointment in careers arises from a mismatch in a person’s ambition and his/her ability to achieve it. Take advice from multiple sources and then see what these different sources have in common. Always consider whether someone is advising you for their own benefit or yours. There is a lot of luck involved in the evolution of someone’s career but luck favours the prepared.

3 most important qualities in a neurologist He or she must be an empathetic physician. You must combine your knowledge of the science of disease and your clinical skills at identifying it with compassion for the individual, treating the patient and not the disease. Apply the scientific method to understand the disease and with this use human compassion to manage the patient’s illness. Try to be the neurologist you would like to consult.

Next frontier in neuroscience is… If I predict this I will be wrong. However I suspect it will be in the territory furthest from our understanding now, which is the frontier between the brain and the mind (and whether this is a discoverable border after all).

Guilty pleasure Eating too well. I don’t feel guilty about drinking too well and I’ve given up smoking long ago….as to other pleasures I feel no guilt.

Favourite tipple in favourite place A glass of American IPA anywhere with one or more of my grown up children, one a Neurologist, one a Clinical Psychologist and one on his way to becoming a Psychiatrist and all three, with their partners, my closest friends and the parents of my (soon to be) five grandchildren.

Favourite quote Voltaire is reported to have said “The effective physician is one who successfully entertains the patient whilst nature effects a cure”. When I told this to a neurosurgical colleague he said “I suppose you will be saying that the effective surgeon is one who successfully entertains himself whilst nature effects the cure”.

Most embarrassing moment When, on my first ward round as a clinical student at Guy’s Hospital, I realised that the zip on my trouser fly had totally failed.

Most cherished possession (apart from family) My Bamboo handled “Queen Square” style tendon hammer, a chimeric object derived from multiple sources over thirty years. It does more than obtain reflexes, it is my totem. Generations of registrars have been trained to retrieve it from lost regions of the hospital.

Fireside read Novels by the new generation of Indian and British Indian authors such as Amulya Malladi, Vikram Chandra and Amitav Ghosh.

Painting I would like on my wall A good one that I had painted, another unrealistic ambition, failing that “Sainte-Victoire Dagï” by Cezanne or David Hockney’s “Woldgate Woods”.

Desert island playlist I would take a collection which reminded me of various stages in my growing up:

  1. Harry Belafonte “The banana boat song (Day O).” My father would play this frequently whilst I was a child growing up in India, where he worked as a Tea Planter. My father was the greatest man I have ever known, my icon still.
  2. Cliff Richard “Livin’ lovin’ doll.” This came out when I was nearly 11 and my older brother played it endlessly in the school holidays.
  3. Charlie Parker “My old flame.” Charlie Parker was my musical obsession at 16 when I was wrestling with the choice of whether to do science A levels or English and History.
  4. Beatles “Love me do.” This peaked in the British charts at the same time as my last holiday visit to my parents in India; it marked the beginning of the crazy 1960’s as far as I was concerned.
  5. Rolling Stones “Get off of my cloud.” A reminder of my somewhat disorganised life as an undergraduate.
  6. Credence Clearwater Revival “Down on the Corner” Would remind me of more time in the “wasted” part of my youth.
  7. Cat Stevens “Morning has broken.” My long suffering wife was a Cat Stevens fan when we met and this was played at our wedding in 1973.
  8. Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, K. 191/186. I played Mozart cassettes nearly continuously in the car when travelling around East Anglia in anticipation of applying for my consultant post involving clinics in Cambridge, Peterborough and Kings Lynn.

ACNR 2015;14(6);16-17.  Online 23/01/15