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FIFTEEN MINUTES WITH...

Doctor Gruffalo

Authors: Patrick Hutt 

Publication date:  23 Jul 2005


The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson is a famous children's book—the story of a mouse who enters the woods and crosses paths with a monster. With over a million copies sold, a sequel written, and a film being made, what does this have to do with medicine? Julia is not a doctor but Malcolm Donaldson, consultant paediatrician and her husband, is. Both will be touring Europe next year with a show called “The Gruffalo and Friends”. BMJ Careers caught up with Malcolm to validate his medical performance

Malcolm and Julia Donaldson will be appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 20th-21st August and Hamley's Piccadilly on 27th August

Have you always had an interest in music and performance?

I failed my A levels in 1966 because I was in a rock band, retaking them again to get into Bristol medical school with two Bs and a D. Five out of six medical schools rejected me—everything I've achieved since has felt like a bonus. When I got to university I did lots of amateur dramatics, where I met Julia (when she was playing a tree), and we went busking in Paris in July 1969. I seemed to be doing more acting than studying.

Are you looking forward to your year on tour?

I can't wait! In the shows I get to play guitar and be the sidekick. The lack of full responsibility is wonderful! The theme that connects my characters, drawn from Julia's books (illustrated by Axel Scheffler) is that they are stupid: I act The Gruffalo (bad and stupid), a butterfly from the book Monkey Puzzle (good and stupid), in Room on a Broom I act a dragon (bad and stupid), and in the The Smartest Giant in Town I act the giant (good and stupid).

In the last book, the giant gives away all his clothes and ends up in his vest and boxer shorts. Such is my devotion to Julia that I do this on stage. The hospital came up to me and said, “We gather that this is a striptease act.” I had to say, “It's all quite decent. I have pants on under my boxer shorts.” My colleagues are bemused. They can't equate the quasi-respectable figure in the hospital with this clown on stage. It's so liberating; no matter how jovial you try to be, medicine is very serious. At the end of the show Julia goes off to sign books for an hour and I entertain the kids by singing nursery rhymes.

Is this role reversal?

We had three children, she wasn't working—I was very much the breadwinner. Now she's earning far more than me. I don't feel at all put out that Julia is doing better—we've never thought like that. We always performed together before she was famous. What's happened is an extension of what we did in our early twenties.

Tell us a little bit about your career?

I could never decide between paediatrics and general medicine. I worked under Trevor Mann, one of the early pioneers of paediatrics, when we moved to Brighton. He was a great mentor; you learnt by example. He was so meticulous and very didactic. I did 18 months' general medicine as well as six months of obstetrics. I ended up at Great Ormond Street in 1978 where I developed an interest in endocrinology, which took me back to Bristol. In 1989 I was offered a job in endocrinology at Glasgow, where I've stayed.

Do you think medical practice has changed for better or for worse over the last 30 years?

I think great improvements have been made. Nearly everything has got better, especially the way that patients and families are informed and counselled, and involved with the decision making. But the erosion of the old fashioned apprenticeship and the emphasis on box ticking, to say what bits and pieces you've done and what courses you have attended, is sad. If only junior doctors were allowed to get their heads down and concentrate on patient care during their six month attachments rather than worrying about their training requirements, they'd actually be better trained. I believe that the best way of training is to serve, something I learnt while working for Trevor Mann.

Do you think medicine is a performance?

Definitely. Medicine is full of comedy, tragedy, bravery, suffering, and generosity. This is a cliché but it's a microcosm of life. If I hadn't been a doctor I would have been an actor. I can't act, sing, or play the guitar especially well but I do all three with enthusiasm.

There is a rumour that you like humour?

I'm a big fan of jokes. When I first started dictating letters I would tell a joke to cheer up my overworked secretary. There were three jokes in the lavatory at Guy's [Malcolm tells two unprintable jokes] and I chose one she would enjoy. Unluckily I had a temp that day—I saw her face change as she typed the following, “What's red and slithers down tree trunks? A monkey's placenta.” Now I choose jokes that I can tell matron and the chief executive.

The Gruffalo and Friends goes on tour next year. ■

Patrick Hutt writer and junior doctor London  patrickhutt@hotmail.com

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