FREE TO DECIDE by James A.  Magner


Building a Life in Science and Medicine
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A physician recollects a contented life as a family man and lover of science. 

Magner (Chess Juggler: Balancing Career, Family and Chess in the Modern World, 2011) grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in Quincy, a small town in Western Illinois. At an early age, he became aware of his “natural curiosity” about the world and realized that he was “unusually ambitious.” He was drawn to intellectually challenging games; he started playing chess in 1965 at the end of eighth grade, and in 1985, he joined the U.S. Chess Federation and began playing rated games. As a child, he experienced an inspiring wonder about the world that would last the rest of his life: “I was astounded already by the age of eight by the concepts of the immense age of the Earth, and that oceans had once covered our neighborhood!” That first kernel of scientific excitement blossomed into a medical career. After studying biology and chemistry in college, Magner attended Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. He became an endocrinologist and worked as a clinician, academic, and researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. The author was just as devoted to his family—he married his wife, Glenda, in 1977 and raised two daughters. He always tried to strike a balance, sometimes delicate, between the need to be “rigorous, exacting, detail-oriented, logical and responsible” and the opportunity to “enjoy life, love and be loved, and be fully open to chance events.”

This remembrance is brimming with charming anecdotes, some of them joyful and others candidly sad. For example, while in medical school, he once contracted mono from a female neighbor who suddenly (and without encouragement) kissed him—she gained entry into his apartment under the pretense of looking something up in his medical textbooks. In another, more somber tale, a teenager he was treating for pneumonia died, leaving him to forlornly consider the “mystery of human suffering.” The author liberally and prudently dispenses advice on a wide range of subjects as well, including finding a career and managing one’s finances. Some of the memoir’s more idiosyncratically personal aspects are less likely to appeal to an audience beyond Magner’s family and friends. The author includes lots of black-and-white photographs of himself and family, copies of meaningful correspondence, astronomical sketches he drew as a youth, and college transcripts. In an extensive series of appendices, he includes some full-length copies of scholarly articles he wrote as well. He even discusses—in impressive detail, frankly—past chess moves and games. While such inclusions add character and personality to Magner’s autobiography, they also diminish its universal relevance for the reader. Nonetheless, Magner lived a very full life with no shortage of either triumph or trauma, and the wisdom that resulted is a pleasure to read. Especially those with an inclination for science can benefit from his meditations on a life properly devoted to both reason and what lies beyond its reach. 

A thoughtful remembrance for those within Magner’s inner circle.

Pub Date: March 25th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-941270-16-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Russell Enterprises, Inc.
Program: Kirkus Indie
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