The English Surgeon

A brain surgeon embarks on an errand of mercy in the Ukraine

The English Surgeon follows Henry Marsh and his partnership with Ukrainian colleague Igor Petrovich Kurilets, as they have their struggles with moral, ethical and professional issues. The documentary was filmed in 2007, at an Ukrainian hospital full of desperate patients and makeshift equipment. Here, both Henry and Igor race against time to save hundreds of lives.

Henry’s emotional journey takes him to visit the mother of a young girl he couldn’t save some years ago, intercut with the current dilemma of a young man called Marian, dying of a brain tumour said to be inoperable in Ukraine. Marian has come to Kyiv hoping that Henry can save him. He thinks he can, but only if Marian is awake throughout the entire operation.

With a soundtrack composed and performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the film is set in a bleak Ukrainian landscape as Henry and his colleague Igor Petrovich Kurilets struggle against massive logistical odds and the wrath of the old Soviet health system.


In 2009, PBS attained an update on the situation in Ukraine from Henry Marsh.

Igor Kurilets’ professional situation in Ukraine has remained difficult and precarious. Ukraine is still struggling to escape its past as part of the Soviet monolith. The concept of civilized competition between professionals is an unfamiliar one.

Kurilets’ professional rivals — other neurosurgeons in Ukraine — have devoted more time and energy to trying to damage his reputation and medical practice than to trying to equal or outperform his remarkable achievements.

He suspects that his contract with the Lipska Street Hospital, where he runs his not-for-profit clinic, will not be renewed at year’s end, partly because the director of the hospital, who was a supporter of his, has retired.

A criminal investigation of Kurilets was begun recently. It regards an operation carried out under his supervision 17 years ago, while he was still working in the state sector. The accusation is clearly absurd, not only because the operation was performed 17 years ago, but also because 17 years ago he was struggling to perform surgery under appalling conditions at the state emergency hospital.

Kurilets has no doubt that this investigation of his “crime” is a preemptive attempt by his rivals to discredit him before the film is shown more widely in Ukraine. (The film has already been screened at two Ukrainian film festivals, where it was rapturously received.) Since the film shows the Ukrainian medical system in a critical light, Kurilets will inevitably make many enemies, who will undoubtedly accuse him of being unpatriotic. This is ironic, given Kurilets’ deep love for his country.

Kurilets hopes to build his own hospital, but his plans have been postponed due to the current economic crisis, which has hit Ukraine especially severely. When I spoke to Kurilets recently, he sounded as determined as ever, though I know he has been through some black times of late. I continue to go to Ukraine on a regular basis and will continue to do so for as long as Kurilets feels that I can help him and his patients.

Henry Marsh
The English Surgeon
  • Info
  • Release date2007
  • Full runtime
  • Director(s)Geoffrey Smith
  • Production companyBungalow Town Productions