A fine, poignant survey of “what makes us human, from the inside out.”

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AROUSED

THE HISTORY OF HORMONES AND HOW THEY CONTROL JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING

A tour of the history of endocrinology, highlighting progress but also the hype that has promoted the curative abilities of hormones.

Epstein (Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, 2010), who has a medical degree and masters of public health, explores the long-held beliefs in the power of glandular “juices,” but she credits two British researchers at the dawn of the 20th century as the founders of the science of endocrinology. Their canine experiments showed that a chemical released by the pancreas aids digestion without the involvement of the nervous system. By 1905, the word hormone had been coined, and the science took off. In successive chapters the author highlights selected hormones, but not before she introduces the “Fat Bride,” a 517-pound sideshow star who, along with giants and bearded ladies, is now considered a victim of hormones gone awry. Epstein devotes a chapter to Harvey Cushing, the brain surgeon who described the hormones secreted by the pituitary gland that also stimulate secretions of other glands. By the 1920s, hormones were touted as being responsible for emotions and behaviors. The ’20s also saw the launch of a long fad for vasectomies, touted as the sure cure for declining libido and other aging male ills. Later chapters also deal with sexual themes. At one time, it was decided that babies born with ambiguous sexual organs should be assigned either a male or female sex designation and have corrective surgery in the first year of life. This is wrong, given current understanding of the complexity of sex determinants; Epstein makes this clear in a sensitive chapter on trans individuals. As for the sex hormones themselves, the hype continues. Not so long ago, estrogen was the dream hormone that would cure hot flashes and ward off heart disease and Alzheimer’s. It’s true for hot flashes, but forget the rest. As for the virtues of testosterone, the hype goes on.

A fine, poignant survey of “what makes us human, from the inside out.”

Pub Date: June 26, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-23960-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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