AT SCHOOL young Geoffrey Keynes' best chum was that doomed golden boy Rupert Brooke; at Cambridge, medical student Keynes regularly mountain climbed with George Leigh Mallory (who explained his fatal passion to conquer Mt. Everest in the immortal phrase, "Because it is there"); in later years Dr. Keynes, surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, enjoyed the friendships of writer Siegried Sassoon, artist Eric Gill, ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Marriage added the eccentric Darwin family (memorialized in sister-in-law Gwen Raverat's Period Piece) to his circle, one that also included the famous, rather distant brother, John Maynard Keynes.

The Gates of Memory chronicles the friendships and accomplishments from 94 years of "what seems likely to be an unusually long life." Happening to live in Brunswick Square while studying at St. Bart's, Keynes was called on to save the life of an unpublished writer who had taken an overdose of pills; he spent the night pumping the stomach of Virginia Woolf. During World War I the young doctor pioneered in the use of blood transfusion--then still a new, experimental technique--and helped many soldiers given over for dead. More than 50 years ago Keynes became convinced that radical surgery might not always be necessary in breast cancer--and he so persuaded the British medical establishment (but not the American). For this and other work as a surgeon he was knighted in 1955.

Many thought Keynes should have received the honor for his services to literature. A lifelong devotion to William Blake led him to prepare the first thorough bibliography of the poet's work, edit the Nonesuch edition of the poems, and direct the Trianon Press' stunning reproductions of the illustrated books. Like other medical men, Keynes also felt especially drawn to physician-writers like Sir Thomas Browne and William Harvey; his six-volume edition of the first is still standard, his 1966 biography of the second was honored with the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Although The Gates of Memory is in the restrained rather than the racy mode --I could have done with more gossip--it is beautifully composed, pellucidly written. Keynes presents himself as a modest, hard-working man, passionate about the detailed work necessary for surgery and bibliography. The book itself, yet another triumph from Oxford, is as elegant and attractive as the man whose admirable life it contains.