Skip to main content

Spotlight on Science Writers: Kevin Fong

A select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Kevin Fong on Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century:

Extreme Medicine is a book about two parallel stories of exploration. The exploration of the physical world that took us out across our oceans and on into the endless frontier of space and the rapid advance of medical science in the 20th Century that saw us unravel the mysteries of the human body. 

In many ways I wrote it to try and resolve the conflict I felt in my own life. When I was a junior doctor in the middle of my residency in anaesthesiology and critical care medicine, I also spent a great deal of my time working as a visiting researcher with NASA at Johnson Space Center, trying to figure out how best to protect crews engaged in space exploration. 

Medicine felt like my vocation, the career to which I should dedicate the whole of my life, while the space stuff, as much as I loved it, felt like an indulgence. But the more I learnt about the limits of the human body and the way we tried to push back the frontiers of medical science to create new opportunities for survival, the more I came to realise that, at heart, it was all an act of exploration. 

We have this idea of medicine as this plodding story of advance, in which one good thing always leads to another and in which progress is constant. And yet, in the 20th Century, so much of our new medicine came in fits and starts, shaped by the fight for life in the face of unexpected challenges.

In both I saw a common thread: the application of science in an attempt to protect the fragile human body from the extremes our world had to offer; whether brought by illness or injury or the hostility of new, uncharted physical environments. 

Looking back over it now, it still seems incredible to me just how far we came in just over a hundred years of progress, from Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic adventure to the hopeful designs we have for human expeditions to Mars today. 

As a junior doctor, I looked after, and spent a great deal of time talking with, patients who were old enough to have fought in the First World War, and who remembered London as a city of cobbled streets and horses with carts. Those people bore witness to a century that I really think was like no other before it; looking on in awe as we hurdled our way across frontier after frontier, across polar ice caps, over mountains, into the sky and out into space. For them, living across a time when the world transformed beyond all recognition, change was the only constant. 

In Extreme Medicine I wanted to capture that sense of adventure and that relentless pace of advance from the perspective of the people who were part of it. Authoring it felt like an act of exploration in itself and, because of that, was something of a joy. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Kevin Fong, M.D., is the Consultant Anaesthetist at University College London (UCL) Hospitals and is Anaesthetic Lead for both the Patient Emergency Response Team and Major Incident Planning. He is an honorary senior lecturer in physiology at UCL, where he organizes and runs an undergraduate course, Extreme Environment Physiology. With degrees in medicine, astrophysics, and engineering, Fong is an expert on space medicine in the United Kingdom and is the co-founder of the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at UCL. He is also known for his television appearances, particularly as a presenter of the long-running BBC2 science program, Horizon.

His book, Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century, was the winner for the 2015 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Young Adult Science Book category.

Going Further

  • Book/Author Resources
  • Medicine
    • Your Health: The Science Inside explores biomedical research and how far health and scientific research has come in the last 150 years.
    • This comprehensive, online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine contains a variety of features that can be used to discover the history of women in medicine.
    • Peering inside the Body describes the sophisticated tools and techniques used in medical imaging, including the PET scan, X ray, angiography, ultrasound, and CT Scan.
    • Scorpion Medicine shares how toxins from scorpions could lead to new drugs for neuromuscular disorders and cardiovascular disease.
    • In this Science Update, hear why leeches are still used in hospitals today.
    • This Science Update examines how Hurricane Katrina survivors got over the trauma of the hurricane surprisingly quickly.
    • This case study teaches you about the risk factors and symptoms of a heart attack and the physiological changes that happen once artery blockage occurs.
    • With these interactives, produced by BBC Science & Nature, learn about the muscles and the organs of the human body.
    • The Science Inside Skin (pdf) offers you a closer peek at the body's surface, including information about the three layers of skin, how skin changes during a lifetime, and various skin ailments.
    • This interactive provides an introduction to the basic structure of the skin, information about how it protects us, and how to care for the skin.
  • Space
    • Astronauts on long-term space missions may face health risks that their predecessors didn't have to worry about. These Science Update reports describe two of them.
    • Listen to the Science Update on the Mars 500 Mission to hear about a crew of six volunteers who embarked on a simulated, 520-day Mars mission.
    • Hear about research to try to make long-distance space travel more comfortable for astronauts in the Mars Hotel Science Update.
    • Check out this Spotlight on Science Writers blog post from Pascal Lee, author of Mission: Mars.
    • This NASA documentary celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks that began in 1965 and continue to this day.
  • Other Extremes
    • This module from the Making the Modern World website examines the role that conflict has played in the making of the modern world.
    • Why can you feel cold even when you're sitting in a warm room? Scientists may have discovered the answer, which is explored in this Science Update on Cold Sensors.
    • The Microbial Life Educational Resources site provides expert information about the ecology, diversity, and evolution of micro-organisms.
    • This resource provides information about Invisible Allies, by Jeanette Farrell, which shares with readers the important impact microbes have on our everyday life.
    • Climate change may precipitate violence, according to a historical analysis.
    • Earth’s changing climate may already be playing a role in today’s conflicts.

Related Educator Resources

  • In the Technological Advances in Health lesson, students learn how technology influences human existence by examining the benefits and risks of different biotechnological advances.
  • This lesson provides students with a brief introduction to various diagnostic imaging technologies used in brain research.
  • In the Acid Stomach lesson, students learn how aspirin works and how understanding its interaction with other chemicals in the body aided doctors in medical research.
  • In this lesson, students explore the anatomy of the heart and the development of heart transplant surgery.
  • In this investigation, students compare the careers of two women, a century apart, involved in medical research.
  • In this lesson, students explore the issue of ethics in medical research and, in particular, the issue of informed consent, in the context of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells.
  • During this lesson, students learn more about the placebo effect.
  • In The Allergy Chronicles lesson, students explore how the immune system functions in a variety of allergic reactions.
  • While aimed at a middle-school audience, The Oxygen Machine may be useful for review: it helps students understand that human beings (as well as other animals) perform the respiration process because we need air to breathe and because oxygen is ultimately the fuel that allows our cells to produce energy from the food we eat.
  • In this lesson, students evaluate an existing space settlement design.
  • While aimed at a middle-school audience, this lesson may allow students to review the many ways technology is central to traveling to, working, and living on Mars.
  • The Invisible Kingdom lesson helps students develop an understanding of the characteristics and diversity of microbial life.
  • In this lesson, students learn about boundaries as they apply to issues of pollution, disease, and conflict within the continent of Asia, between Asian nations, and between Asian nations and members of the international community.
  • In this lesson, students explore how scientific knowledge changes in the context of abrupt climate change.
  • This lesson examines the impacts of drought from a variety of perspectives.
  • In this lesson, students use the Internet to explore population distribution and survivorship curves.
  • While aimed at a middle school audience, this lesson on skin, in which students examine the skin and how it functions as an organ and as part of a larger body system, may be useful for review.


This post previously appeared on Science NetLinks.