Two New Books for the Medically Minded

Sarah Harrison Smith on November 30, 2017
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Whether you are searching for a holiday gift for the doctor in your family, or are fascinated by brilliant minds, these new books -- one memoir, one history -- offer intriguing looks at the lives and work of two eminent surgeons. 

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Henry Marsh’s new memoir, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon, follows his retirement, “in a fit of anger,” from a half-century-long career as a neurosurgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London. Marsh did not entirely give up his work (the subject of his earlier book, Do No Harm) instead volunteering as a surgeon in places like Nepal and Ukraine, while renovating the derelict canal-side cottage he intended to use as a woodworking workshop. This period of enormous personal change prompts interesting ruminations on aging and the cognitive dissonance of neurosurgeons who insist on believing in an afterlife. But the delight of Admissions, as its punning title implies, is Marsh’s emotional honesty when he recalls episodes both private and professional, never flinching from the shame he feels over his occasional mistakes and bad behavior. This literary memoir is as soul-expanding as a good novel, yet one feels that there’s not an untrue word in it.

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Fitzharris, a gifted storyteller as well as a specialist in the history of science, medicine, and technology, recounts the extraordinary true-life tale of how British surgeon Joseph Lister transformed medical care by proving the efficacy of sterilizing medical equipment.  Trained in an era when acute patient suffering was a given, the recent discovery of ether as a painkiller allowed surgeons like Lister more time to operate. (Never one to stint on wonderfully gruesome details, Fitzharris describes some of the errors made during pre-ether surgeries when racing the clock led to gross mistakes in amputation.) But postoperative infections still caused an enormous number of deaths. Lister's antiseptic methods improved mortality and eventually spread throughout hospitals worldwide. When Queen Victoria herself had an abscess in her armpit "the size of an orange," Lister's innovations saved her. The Butchering Art is an absorbing medical and social history that will leave you feeling both enlightened and thankful to benefit from the advances Lister (and his wife) popularized.

(Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, property of the University of Pennsylvania)


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