A Book and a Podcast About Fascinating Medical History

Confession: I have a thing for weird medical history. It started with Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and has deepened over the last year as I have listened to the Sawbones podcast, a marital tour of misguided medicine. It’s so much fun to learn about the bizarre fumblings of people who were SUPER wrong about how our bodies work, and then to see how we gradually began to get things right. When I saw The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn in the Little, Brown catalogue, I basically squealed in delight. I just finished reading it a few days ago, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

The Man Who Touched His Own Heart explores the history of the human heart and our struggle to learn its secrets. Beginning with ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, this book moves through Galen’s discoveries in first century Turkey, the loss of knowledge during the Dark Ages, and the advances in understanding from da Vinci to the present day. The story of the heart is full of missteps leading to tiny advances, and finally, giant leaps.

Much of the book focuses on discoveries made after 1896, when the first, primitive heart surgery was performed in the wake of a bar fight. (A glamorous start for cardiology, right?) During the 20th century, a surgery that had once been unthinkable became commonplace and even routine as doctors and scientists learned more about the heart and developed procedures and technology to repair broken hearts, including the heart lung machine, pacemakers, transplants, angioplasty, stents, and more.

Perhaps most fascinating to me were the chapters focusing on recent and contemporary research into heart disease. Atherosclerosis is a major problem among humans who live long enough for it to occur, and scientists are turning to evolutionary biology to learn how we developed this disease and how we can combat it in the future. It’s incredible to learn just how much we still don’t know about one of our most vital organs, and the glimpses into our evolutionary past sparked my imagination and made me crave more information.

I really enjoyed this book, and I came away with it with some great “hey, did you know?” facts for dinner parties. (Ha! As if I go to dinner parties. But if I did, I would totally bust out these gems during lulls in the conversation.) Did you know that all mammals have roughly one billion heartbeats during their lifetimes, but that modern science has earned humans an extra 1.5 billion heartbeats? Or that cannibals have a lower risk of atherosclerosis? Or why high cholesterol is a problem for humans but not for chimps? The Man Who Touched His Own Heart is an excellent overview of our pursuit to understand the heart, chock full of interesting facts.

If this book interests you, I highly recommend also listening to the Sawbones podcast. Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin (also of the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast) take listeners on a tour of “all the dumb, bad, gross, weird, and wrong ways we’ve tried to fix people.” Each 30-40 minute episode deals with a different medical condition or treatment in a way that is both informational and hilarious.

Sydnee and Justin recently did an episode about blood transfusions, which ties in well with The Man Who Touched His Own Heart. Other standout episodes include “The Goat Testicle Solution,” which explores John R. Brinkley’s infamous attempts to use xenotransplantation of goat testicles to cure male impotence; “Cholera,” which is every bit as gross as you might guess; and “Pregnancy Tests,” which looks at the most bizarre ways people have tried to predict pregnancy through the ages. The smart doctor wife and the goofy husband make a great team with fantastic chemistry, and they are as entertaining as they are educational.

Do you have a soft spot for weird medical history? How do you get your fix?

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.


11 thoughts on “A Book and a Podcast About Fascinating Medical History

  1. I like the book/podcast combo – very creative! This does sound interesting – especially all the weird ways doctors used to “heal” people. I remember reading about the all purpose treatment of essentially bleeding someone out (I can’t remember the exact name) that was used centuries ago (I think it was in one of Ken Follett’s books – maybe The Pillars of the Earth or World Without End?). Horrifying!!

  2. Thank you for the info about the podcast, Leah. It sounds terrific. I also love medicine, basically because most of my relatives are doctors or nurses, so I grew up with lots of medicine around. We should totally indulge in some medicine and bookish love some day 🙂

  3. This sounds right up my alley! I like books that relate to medicine (such as Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). As for “weird” medical history, I read Aptowicz’s Dr. Mutter’s Marvel’s last fall.

  4. This one sounds fantastic! What a title, it hooked me! I am reading The Far Side of Silence, it’s medical thriller that put puts medicine in the future, but the book follows right along with today. Robert Marcus is the author, his site is rbmarcus.com for it’s info.

  5. Pingback: February Reads - Books Speak Volumes

  6. I do like to read a book like this every now and then! I just finished Brain on Fire by Susanah Cahalan, which isn’t /quite/ medical history but still fascinating for the same reasons. I hadn’t heard of this one before, so thanks for sharing.

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