A Ripley-esque collection of “compellingly disgusting, hilarious, or downright bizarre” medical oddities.
British journalist and medical historian Morris (The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations, 2018), a regular writer for the Lancet, scoured 300 years of medical literature’s “little-known corners” to ferret out 60-plus cases that reach the level of believe-it-or-not’s. “Every one of these cases says something about the beliefs and knowledge of an earlier age,” he writes. He presents the cases in anecdotal fashion, with numerous quotes from the published articles, accompanied by the author’s witty and often humorous, colloquial commentary. The cases are divided into seven sections, including “Mysterious Illnesses,” “Horrifying Operations,” and “Remarkable Recoveries.” In the “Unfortunate Predicaments” file, we find the 1823 case of a sailor who, when sufficiently inebriated, would swallow clasp-knives “for a laugh.” He once swallowed three in succession and, at another time, over two days, 14; ultimately, 35 in all: “Dear oh dear. Will he never learn?” Most passed, but some, an autopsy revealed, remained, partially digested. Then there’s the 1827 case of a boy “who got his wick stuck in a candlestick.” He was unable to urinate, so they finally operated, and an enormous jet of urine “projected” onto the doctor. “Charming.” Like quirky Perry Mason book titles, the list unwinds: the boy who vomited his own twin, the case of the luminous patients, the case of the drunken Dutchman’s guts, the self-inflicted lithotripsy, the combustible countess, the death of a 152-year-old, the human waxwork, the amphibious infant, and the man killed by his false teeth. In 1857, San Francisco surgeon Dr. Elias Samuel Cooper performed a two-plus-hour heart surgery, an “unthinkable” feat. He removed a piece of metal from beneath a beating heart while the patient “was fully conscious.” For its time, Morris writes, “there is virtually nothing to match this operation for complexity and sheer jeopardy.”
Amusing and often painful items best taken in small doses.