Morris looks at some of the great moments in cardiology and our understanding of how the heart muscle works.
World War I was nobody’s idea of fun, but the horrific wounds produced by shrapnel, machine guns, gas, and other lethal agents gave doctors plenty of opportunities to study novel cases of suffering. In the case of cardiac surgery, writes the author, doctors reviewing the literature of the French battlefields discovered that 23 of 26 patients survived operations. That number, which would be impressive even by modern-day standards, was the result of innovations such as X-rays, whose discoverer “found that they could be used to visualize the internal structures of the human body” and which doctors found could be used to locate bullets, metal shards, and other foreign bodies. From this, heart-related surgery advanced rapidly. Morris’ case studies, 11 major ones in all, range across significant achievements such as the understanding of why “blue babies” were born and the resulting effort to close off defective blood vessels (the hero of which suffered from a staggering visual impairment that was not medically treated until long after he retired from medicine); the development of heparin, the drug that made heart surgery possible in the first place but whose discoverer “died in obscurity” (until now, at any rate); and the development of the pacemaker by an engineer who, left to his own wishes, would have worked on ways to pasteurize beer instead. This is a book of learned asides and extensive trivia, but it’s always enfolded in a well-developed narrative with no end of heroes (South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, Romanian doctor Thoma Ionescu) and no end of technical problems to overcome.
Just the thing for aspiring heart surgeons, who may one day soon be 3-D printing new hearts that will be “dispatched in drones to wherever they are needed.”