Consultant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan has been awarded the £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize 2016 for her debut It’s All in Your Head (Vintage) which describes her journey through the world of psychosomatic illness.
O’Sullivan beat competition from Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love (Picador), NeuroTribes by Stephen Silberman (Allen & Unwin), The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate Books), Signs for Lost Children (Granta) and Alex Pheby’s Playthings (Galley Beggar Press).
All in Your Head focuses on debilitating illnesses that are medically unexplained. The prize organisers said: “We all exhibit physical responses to emotion – from blushing and laughter, to palpitations and stomach- ache – yet sometimes these expressions can be much more debilitating, causing seizures, paralysis, and even blindness, and the stigmatization associated with such a diagnosis is profound… Merging autobiography with absorbing case histories taken from her clinical experience, O’Sullivan’s work spotlights an area of increased attention in medical science – the boundaries between what afflicts the body and the mind and how deeply related the one is to the other.”
The winner was announced by acclaimed author, journalist and broadcaster Joan Bakewell DBE, at a ceremony held this evening (25th April), in Wellcome Collection's Reading Room.
Bakewell said of the winner: “It is a truly impressive book, chosen for its many virtues. Suzanne O’Sullivan is a consultant neurologist and her first-hand accounts of diagnosing her patients offer new insights into the relationship between the body and the mind. The fact that society divides them into two medical disciplines - the physical and the mental - is being increasingly challenged. O’Sullivan’s book brings to light important examples of how the two inter-relate.”
After the winner was announced, O'Sullivan told The Bookseller: "I'm thrilled and a bit disoriented. It was great once [the prize ceremony] started but it was the longest 10 minutes of my life waiting for it to start. It was lovely, it's such a great experience. It's very surreal, I don't think it's completely hit home yet."
She added: "The fact I've won this is such, in my mind, a mark of respect for the patients I'm looking after. I hope it gives some recognition to the seriousness of the disorder, the need for us to develop better services for it. I'm personally thrilled to have this but the whole point of the book is to bring awareness to sorts of patients I look after. I really think this is going to make a big difference."
The 2016 prize was judged by a panel comprising Bakewell as chair, Frances Balkwill OBE, professor of cancer biology at Barts Cancer Institute and an author of science books for children; writer, columnist and salonnière, Damian Barr; award-winning novelist, Tessa Hadley; and award-winning journalist and author, Sathnam Sanghera.
The £30,000 prize celebrates the best new books, published from 1st January 2015 to 31 December 2015, that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.