The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths

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9780684854861: The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths
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A respected doctor offers a discussion of the traditions and folklore of medicine, focusing on the effort to understand the human body, and including anecdotes from his own medical career

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Medicine has always contained elements of mythology and mysticism. Various ancient civilizations believed that the spleen and uterus moved around in the body when so motivated, that the heart was the center of thought and the liver the source of mood, and that internal organs were independent creatures with their own agendas. Dr. Sherwin Nuland, who has been performing surgery on these organs for four decades, here presents the amazing story of how superstition trumped science for most of medical history. For example, an early 17th-century Christian monk named Jean Baptiste van Helmont believed that the stomach was the center of human anatomy--the locus of the soul, in fact. His proof? That a punch to the stomach can knock a man out. "Had he been more pugilistically oriented, would he have placed it in the jaw?" Nuland asks.

Van Helmont's theories demonstrate the faulty logic that crippled medicine for most of human history. Human knowledge of anatomy began with observations of twitching organs on mortally wounded soldiers as they died on the battlefield, and for thousands of years couldn't move much past that. And even when a real scientific breakthrough occurred--as in the mid-18th century, when René Réaumur figured out that stomach acids, rather than compressive forces, were responsible for digestion--it had to be imbued with some sort of spiritual, supernatural component that overrode the science.

The problem, Nuland writes, is that the human mind seems to have an impulse to "turn instinctively toward mysticism when reason has no ready explanation for the mysteries still remaining in our biology." Elegantly and humorously, Nuland shows us how we came to understand the organs from which we've derived the strongest and strangest mythology--stomach, liver, heart, spleen, and uterus. After reading this book, you'll be able to smile appreciatively when someone expresses a "gut feeling" or relates how he "vented his spleen." --Lou Schuler

About the Author:

Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D., F.A.C.S., is clinical professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine, where he has taught since 1962. He is the author of several previous books, among them How We Die, a national best-seller that has been translated into sixteen languages. How We Die won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. More recently he wrote The Wisdom of the Body (published in paperback as How We Live). Dr. Nuland lives in Connecticut.

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