Ten Question Q&A with Mark Derby


Q1: You would have come across Doug Jolly while working on your 2009 book Kiwi Campaneros, about the New Zealanders who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Was there something to his story that made you think then that you would come back to him some time in the future?

Almost everyone I profiled in that first book seemed wonderfully dedicated and interesting to me (I only managed to actually meet one of them, unfortunately). But Jolly definitely stood out as the only one with an international reputation. I could hardly believe that he’d been almost totally forgotten in his country of birth while he was still widely admired in Britain, the US and elsewhere. So I kept his story in the back of my mind, gathered more information on him whenever I could, and was eventually contracted by a US publisher to write his biography. They’ll get the book out around the world, but I’m very grateful to Massey University Press for making it available in local bookshops for a reasonable price.

Q2: Such a clever and accomplished man — at school, at sport, at university and then on the frontline — a complex love life, potential stymied . . . A biographer’s dream?

The more I learned of Jolly, the more I liked him. He was a great singer at parties, and would perform his school haka in the middle of an operating theatre to inspire his exhausted colleagues. He met key figures in 20th century culture and politics like the economist Karl Polanyi, the photographer Gerda Taro and the writer Ernest Hemingway. He insisted on operating first on his most critically injured patients, even when they were troops from the opposing side. He carried out more complex abdominal operations in Spain than most surgeons see in their entire career, yet was not permitted to practise surgery in peace time. I found him both impressive and very intriguing as a subject, and I hope my interest comes through to the reader.

Q3: How difficult was it to dig into his time during both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and then his later career?

The book required a truly worldwide research effort, since the International Brigade, in which Jolly served in the Spanish Civil War, was made up of volunteers from about 50 nationalities, from Finnish to Chinese, and any one of them could have left an important account of his work as a battlefield surgeon. I eventually used research materials written in at least 12 languages, including Russian, Hungarian, Catalan and Basque, so I relied heavily on translators like my son Reuben, who is fluent in Spanish. And I did all this during the height of the Covid pandemic, without leaving my home in Lyall Bay, Wellington.

Q4: What were the research breakthroughs along the way that helped?

There were quite a few, and I would have been lost without them. I have no medical knowledge so I relied totally on the advice of a New Zealand-born, Sydney-based intensive care specialist named David Lowe. David also proved to be a genius at historical research and he tracked down Jolly’s personal papers, including letters, unpublished photos and military records, held in various countries. These have now been brought together and lodged with the Hocken Library at Otago University, where Doug studied medicine 100 years ago.

Q5: There are such tragedies in his life: the cruel quirk in the Royal College of Surgeons’ system that meant he could not practise as a surgeon after the Second World War ended, and his own mental illness. There was no grand civilian life for him. But there is a huge legacy. How so?

There seems to be a combination of reasons why Jolly sank into relative obscurity after WW2 while many of his colleagues, even those who regarded him as the better surgeon, went on to glittering careers. He was always a non-aligned leftie, and that may have counted against him in the conservative UK of the 1950s. But it was probably his erratic mental health — he had a bipolar condition which manifested periodically throughout his life — that was the biggest factor. It didn’t prevent him from being a brilliant surgeon during wartime, and may even have helped somewhat — he was known for operating at great speed all day, all night and into the next day, outlasting teams of nurses and other colleagues. But it became more of a handicap in peace time, especially as he grew older. I came to admire Doug even more for the way he managed his mental health with such stoicism, and I’m very grateful to his family for encouraging me to tell this side of his story without any restrictions whatsoever. To me he’s a great role model for anyone who struggles with a longterm psychiatric condition.

Q6: What influence might that upbringing in that then-remote little central Otago town of Cromwell have had on his character?

It’s surely ironic that such an internationalist was born and raised in the high-plains hamlet of Cromwell. However, his family were big fish in that small pond — his grandfather, father and two brothers served as mayors of the town, and the Jolly general store (which is still there today) was central to its growth. The family was staunchly Presbyterian — non-drinkers who placed a high value on education and public service. At university Doug outgrew much of this religious upbringing but he retained its core principles of selfless dedication to others throughout his life. Military service was also important to the Jolly family — Doug’s father died a hero’s death in WW1 and one uncle was a highly decorated veteran of that war. From bitter experience, Doug came to regard war as ‘a terrible thing’ but he was always willing to use his outstanding skills to treat its victims, both military and civilian.

Q7: What do you consider to be the impact of his Christian socialist beliefs on the way he conducted himself?

Doug stopped attending church services after he left home and eventually his friends spanned the entire political spectrum, but it’s my impression that he never lost his early commitment to a non-sectarian, humanist, Christian socialism. That’s what prompted him to take part in the Spanish Civil War — at the cost of membership of the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons — and enabled him to keep his head during almost seven years of frontline service while all around him, others were losing theirs, literally and figuratively. He was a truly modest and self-sacrificing, yet exceptionally gifted figure, and his lightly worn but deeply felt Christian socialist views were surely fundamental to his life and work.

Q8: He’s been overlooked, but this book will surely go a long way to giving him the due we owe him. Pleased to have been part of that?

Apart from being a terrific story, what primarily drove me to write about Doug Jolly’s life was my astonishment at how he had been overlooked in other accounts. Although he clearly is one of the greatest war surgeons of the 20th century, he doesn’t rate a mention in the official war histories of either New Zealand or Britain. Accounting for that lacuna, and aiming to redress it, was a central purpose of the book. It appears to be having an effect. I’ve been asked to talk about Doug at next year’s 150th anniversary of the Otago Medical School, and Dr. David Lowe and I have already spoken about him at various medical history gatherings.

Q9: What five adjectives best describe him?

On a plaque on the Cromwell general store founded by Jolly’s grandfather in 1870, Doug is described as ‘courageous, dedicated and innovative’. I’d add to that ‘warm-hearted’ and ‘memorable’.

Q10: What could any young medical student take from reading about Doug Jolly’s life?

I would tell them: whatever your personal views on warfare, there is no doubt that it has generated dramatic advances in medical science such as (in the 20th century) the  vital role of penicillin, the widespread use of blood banks, new methods of wound treatment and the organising of medical support to armed forces. All of these advances later transformed peace-time emergency and trauma medicine. Bear this in mind if you have the opportunity to practise your profession in a war zone. If you happen to take part in such medical advances, aim to record and circulate them for others to use. In 1940, Jolly published a medical manual based on his Spanish Civil War experience. It was still in use during the Vietnam War, 20 years later.

Once the bombs start falling, work with what you have, not what your textbooks taught you. In Spain, Jolly treated a soldier shot in the face by implanting a piece of cow bone. It worked. Wherever you work as a young doctor, resist the pressure to regard your patients simply as ‘cases’ but rather see them as human beings whose future  wellbeing is in your hands.