Two accolades to the inventor of cryogenic surgery precede his memoirs, which require no send-off beyond his own strong,...


THE VITAL PROBE: My Life as a Brain Surgeon

Two accolades to the inventor of cryogenic surgery precede his memoirs, which require no send-off beyond his own strong, troubled words: ""How does a surgeon decide to place, for the first time, a delicate surgical instrument deep within a child's skull, in order to destroy a tiny bit of tissue that is part of that miracle of miracles, the human brain?"" The story, then, is of individuals--always with questions. Raymond Walker, Cooper's first crucial case, was 35, incarcerated in a mental hospital, an extreme sufferer from the tremors of parkinsonianism. Cooper had ""serendipitously"" discovered a way to relieve such tremors (by closing off an artery at the base of the brain), without in the process paralyzing the patient. ""But would it work again as it had on that first occasion?"" The success of that operation introduces the story's second major strand: Cooper's long-standing, turbulent confrontations with the ""distinguished"" neurologists who dismissed his findings, called his work fraudulent, suggested that he was a charlatan--or, perhaps, effecting temporary cures by the force of his personality. Considering the astonishing relief of symptoms in the majority of his cases (the devastating failures get equal time here), why was Cooper shunned? He still can't explain it, though he suggests that his age, his naivetÉ in handling the attacks, and his lack of early failures contributed. So did certain occurrences--among them, Life coverage of his treatment of Margaret Bourke-White--which led his detractors to label him a publicity-hound, virtually a mortal sin at that time. Cooper's patients and their faroilies (some of whom appeared in The Victim Is Always the Same, 1973) are here in force; and this is where he draws his strength--notwithstanding the 2 A.M. calls (""We want you to suffer, too"") from the family of one patient who died. He makes the decisions seem horrendous, the brain-work (deceptively) easy--and leaves the reader wanting to know more. (Did he really go to reed school because ""three middle-aged ladies told me I looked like a doctor""?) Humane, humorous, and dramatic--a failsafe combination.

Pub Date: Oct. 26, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1981