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Richard Brown ’81, M.D.’85
Richard Brown ’81, M.D.’85 Photo by K.C. Alfred

Thriller With a Cause

Hand surgeon and author Richard Brown has raised tens of thousands of dollars – and counting – for Doctors Without Borders

When Richard Brown ’81, M.D.’85 learned about the Holocaust as a child, one perplexing question echoed in his mind: Why didn’t someone intervene?

Decades later, in 2003, he was shaken by reports of genocide in Darfur. That same germ of idealism would not let him stand idly by. A fellow physician pointed Brown, a hand surgeon in Southern California, toward the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.

“They’re actually going to do something about the problem,” said Brown, who instinctively wanted to help.

The organization needed primary care physicians, not hand surgeons. So, while Brown could not lend his surgical skill, he knew he could raise money for the cause through his hobby – writing novels. Between proceeds from the sales of his books and donations from readers, Brown has secured more than $60,000 for Doctors Without Borders, and all through his creation of fast-paced medical thrillers.

The genre – like the impulse to do good – comes naturally.

Brown penned his two novels – Scalpel’s Cut and Scalpel’s Plunge: End of the Party” – in his spare moments. He cracks jokes about how literary they aren’t, but behind all that self-effacement is diligent research and patient writerly process. Brown cites Tim Weiner’s 848-page CIA history, Legacy of Ashes,” as an example of the dense, thorough nonfiction he does not have the endurance to write. But he’s using Weiner’s careful study as inspiration to learn more about espionage elements for his planned third book, still two or three years down the road.

“If it’s described in the [Weiner] book, it’s accurate,” Brown said.

Proximity to San Diego means he can consult special ops personnel before writing military scenes. Brown’s protagonist is also a hand surgeon, and every injury or surgery in his books is real, based on a case Brown or a friend took care of. When it came to accuracy in the biotech sector, which features prominently in the second book, Brown happened upon an expert with an unexpected connection – Diego Miralles, formerly an assistant professor at the Department of Medicine and the Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke. Miralles is now a physician-scientist and biotech CEO, but as their worlds intersected on the West Coast, he wound up in Brown’s La Jolla, California, practice with tennis elbow.

“We immediately connected,” Miralles said. “We had a lot of Duke friends and common people. We had been at Duke at the same time, actually.” Independent of the Duke connection, Miralles quickly realized that Brown was one of those rare people who, when you are with them, give you 100 percent of their attention. A close friendship developed in no time.

Brown invited Miralles to read the manuscript of Scalpel’s Plunge. Miralles had never witnessed the authorial process firsthand, so he dug in, fact-checking the biotech-related details as he went.

One result: A more realistic book.

Another: Brown based a character on Miralles.

It is clear in Brown’s writing that he is enjoying himself. It’s fun to insert your friends’ personalities into story lines and to create plausible action scenes. While Brown raises money to support the victims of genocide, a weighty subject, his books are light, reflecting the author’s attitude toward his philanthropic hobby.

“If you think about who the great writers are and the kind of language that they use, I’m so impressed with that, but I’m not capable,” Brown said, laughing at himself. “This is the genre that I’ve settled on.” 

Follow Richard Brown’s Doctors Without Borders campaign (or donate) at