I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. That didn’t pan out, and I’m fine with that, but the interest in all things medical has lingered. Because I was planning to read more non-fiction anyway, I picked up this book on a whim, and although I wasn’t disappointed, it lacks a certain degree of depth. More subcutaneous than intraosseal, if you please.
Van de Laar – who is a surgeon himself – takes us through the history of medicine, and specifically surgery, but instead of telling the tale chronologically he chooses to make his case based on famous cases and surgeries of yore. In doing so, he doesn’t skimp on the gory details, though he never goes for cheap shock value. The approach makes the tale much livelier; the first story is about a 17th century Dutchman who cut out his own bladder stone, with a surprising degree of success. Van der Laar discusses anatomy and procedurals, but also explains the setting – the man sent his wife to the fish market and had his assistant hold his genitals out of the way as he lay on his kitchen table, legs akimbo.
It is not for the squeamish, though; Van de Laar is clearly used to the human body and all that is hidden therein, and though he doesn’t revel in upping the gross factor, he doesn’t skimp on the details either; be it about surgery in the age before anaesthetics, or graphically describing the injuries that John F. Kennedy suffered when he was assassinated. The focus is always on the surgeon rather than the patient, as Van der Laar explains the thought process, the operation itself, and practical obstacles that needed to be conquered. Aside from the self-performed bladder operation, among other things, he writes about the relation between Lenin’s unusually long neck and a series of strokes; the anal discomforts of Louis XIV, the surgical arrogance that brought down the Shah of Iran, and how Albert Einstein’s aneurysm was wrapped in clingfilm because nobody had any better ideas. These tales are interspersed with information about the practicality of surgery: who is in the operating theatre? Which devices are used? How does the human body develop in the womb? What are the risks of obesity in surgery? Admirably, he is never preachy, though I suppose he doesn’t have to; he lets the facts and statistics speak for themselves.
As a history, it works as long as you don’t expect too much depth; for that, it is far too anecdotal. Similarly, ethics do not seems to hold Mr. Van de Laar’s primary interest; occasionally he tells tales of human suffering that led to some great discovery or other with a bit too much glee, and though he occasionally does point out that some of the experiments conducted by his predecessors might not have been acceptable, strictly speaking, it seems like includes this as a sort of pro forma caveat. All in all, this is an entertaining, if forgettable read that offers a very basic insight into the world of surgeons throughout the ages, that makes up its lack of depth with interesting anecdotes.