This time, the doctor has his fun at the expense of such political figures as Washington, Napoleon, Hitler, and Churchill; royals such as Queen Victoria and Germany's Frederick III; literary luminaries from Boswell to Proust; and assorted others, including van Gogh, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes. Aware that Washington's ownership of false teeth is a familiar story, Gordon enlarges the retelling by informing us of 18th-century dental practicetransplants from cadavers, dentures from walrus tusksthereby making us value dentistry's advances in recent times. The notion of medicine's progress permeates Gordon's accounts, for the treatments that 17th- and 18th-century doctors inflicted on patientspurgatives, enemas, bleedings, cuppings, and numerous foul concoctionsnow seem not merely ineffective but downright death-promoting. Perhaps even more terrifying is the idea of surgery without anesthesia; Gordon's graphic description of the operation Pepys endured for removal of bladder stones sticks in the mind. Clever and gossipy, Gordon's brief anecdotes are full of name-dropping and sexual tittle-tattle: Boswell had gonorrhea, Carlyle was impotent, Florence Nightingale was a lesbian, and Hitler had only a right testicle. It is relief to come to the last chapter, where Gordon has the most fun of all with fictional figures. Dr. Watson's letter to Freud about his neurotic friend Holmes is a gem, as is Freud's reply.
Discovering the human frailties of notable men and women (Byron had sclerosis of the liver, Proust suffered from mother-fixation, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was anorexic) does little to increase appreciation of their work but certainly cuts them down to size. For the most part, this is pretty low stuff, the National Enquirer for history buffs.