Retired doctor who grew up in Buckingham writes a novel about the dangers of water pollution

Following a successful medical career and a memoir published last year, Jo Dixon's new book is a work of ecofiction

Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 2:17 pm
Updated Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 2:18 pm

A retired doctor who grew up in Buckingham and attended the Royal Latin School, has written a novel about the dangers of water pollution.

Jo Dixon's debut novel, Swimming in Circles, is in the increasingly popular genre of ecofiction.

In it, Jo (nee Southgate) describes how the dumping of sewage and environmental pollution with heavy metals such as mercury are linked to the rising prevalence of Parkinson’s disease across the globe.

Jo Dixon with her new eco-novel

The story follows Joe, who works in the fisheries in Midwest America, and his son, Michael, a scientist researching the mysterious deaths of young salmon.

When his father develops Parkinson’s disease, Michael tries to help the only way he knows how, by resorting to the evidence in science journals. He continues his research after moving to Norwich with his partner, Luke.

“The characters are fictional,” said Jo, aged 53, who now lives with her husband and four children in Norfolk. “However, the science, medical explanations and reports of pollution are real.”

In writing the book, Jo drew from her own life experiences and medical background.

Swimming in Circles

In 1993, she went to the American Midwest shortly after the floods to visit her mum, Gill Southgate, who had moved there following a long teaching career at Chandos Middle School in Buckingham and Akeley Wood School.

Jo said: “The devastation the floods caused was shocking. Everywhere was covered in brown silt.

"Sadly, these events have become even more common over the last decades. There are now regular reports of raw sewage pouring into our rivers and seas.”

During her time working in hospitals, Jo witnessed many patients with Parkinson’s disease and similar conditions, presenting at different stages - something that helped her when she was describing Joe’s illness in the novel.

Jo with both her books

Jo explained: “In the opening scene, he’s in the midst of an argument with some people whom only he can see. This is based on a patient I saw once who thought he was playing cards for money. He was later diagnosed with Parkinson’s dementia.”

Parkinson’s disease predominantly affects the brain, but it is now becoming clear that it starts in the gut.

Jo, who trained in gastroenterology, is fascinated by the gut-brain link.

Jo's interest in science began as a schoolgirl in Buckingham and she appeared in the Advertiser in 1991, for receiving a First in her Intercalated BSc degree (an extra year of research during her medical qualification) at Southampton University.

She qualified in 1992, working in Southampton, Oxford and Cambridge and finally becoming a consultant in Acute Medicine and Gastroenterology in Norwich in 2004.

Last year, Jo published a memoir, The Missing Link in Dementia, about her own illness.

Jo was a successful hospital consultant and a mother of four in her early 40s when she was struck down by a mystery illness. She started falling over, forgetting things and getting lost. Her symptoms bore all the hallmarks of dementia.

Fearful that she wouldn’t live to see her children grow up, Jo became both doctor and patient as she fought to find the cause of her devastating symptoms before it was too late.

Her detective work led her to discover that the underlying problem was in her gut, causing malabsorption of essential vitamins.

Jo has been commended on her research and the explanations of basic science, and some of the more complex concepts.

She said: “I think the link I discovered between gut bacteria, vitamin malabsorption and the function of the brain may be important in other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and even Covid-19.”

Her new novel, Swimming in Circles, touches on a real-life case of mercury poisoning in Japan that poisoned thousands of people, which is also the subject of the 2020 film Minamata, starring Johnny Depp.

Jo said: “This environmental disaster occurred on a large scale with high doses.

“But all over the world, people are being slowly poisoned by low-level mercury, and mercury accumulates over time.

"Bacteria act on mercury to produce methyl-mercury, which is even more toxic, hence sewage leakage into our waterways is extremely serious.

"Eating fish also increases the risk of mercury toxicity.

“Even more troubling, the main source of mercury is burning fossil fuels.

"Increasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide leads to flooding and more methyl-mercury.

"Mercury is easily vapourised, hence increasing global temperatures increases the amount of mercury in the atmosphere.

"It’s a mercury cycle - it’s not all about carbon. Pollution, climate change and human health are inextricably linked.”

Swimming in Circles and The Missing Link in Dementia are published by Wrate’s Publishing and are available from Amazon as a paperback or eBook.

Jo’s blog can be found at drjodixon.wordpress.com