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From Barnes & NobleMedical Magic, Myths, Miracles, and Mysteries
Dr. Sherwin Nuland broke through modern-day taboos and the barrier of silence with his bestselling and award-winning exposé of death in America, How We Die. This groundbreaking look at the process of dying and our society's continued efforts to defy -- or at the very least, ignore -- the inevitable did much to demystify and demythologize death. Now Nuland turns his eye toward the past and reverses the process, exploring the roots of modern medicine and the evolution of the mythology and mystery surrounding the human body in The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths. Nuland goes back through history and examines the magic, mystery, discoveries, and primitive beliefs that forged much of modern medical science and established the still-existing associations we have with our internal organs and their imagined powers.
Nuland focuses on five of those organs: the stomach, heart, liver, spleen, and uterus. And while it's not identified as an organ of discussion for the book, the human mind is also under study here as Nuland delves into the quest for knowledge, the search for immortality, and the nurturing of the spirit that has gone on from man's earliest beginnings. In addition to his historical exploration of the science and magic behind past and current mythologies, Nuland also details real-life cases from his own repertoire of experiences, cases that focus on the organ under discussion. These tense and moving human dramas are filled with a sense of urgency, curiosity, and immediacy that make them as riveting and powerful as any episode of ER.
The first, a story about an infant with a puzzling stomach problem, drives home the fact that medicine, despite astounding advances, is still an inexact science at times. The process Nuland uses to diagnose the child's malady is not much different from a Sherlock Holmes mystery -- examining certain clues to come to a logical conclusion. Except logic has little to do with this highly unusual case. After reading another story where Nuland describes the frantic efforts that he and another doctor made to try to save the life of a young woman whose liver was torn in an auto accident, it's easy to understand how a surgeon might develop a god complex. Yet part of the warmth and humanity in these stories comes from Nuland's own self-deprecating additions. He readily admits to several past transgressions -- not the least of which was a lack of humility -- and the stories he has chosen provide a heartwarming and sometimes amusing look at what is involved when a surgeon first loses his innocence, his smugness, and his distance. The tales are awe-inspiring and fascinating, with an edge-of-your-seat suspense that makes them the highlight of the book.
Interspersed with the real-life dramas are Nuland's explorations of the discoveries and teachings of such notables as Hippocrates, Aristotle, Plato, Pavlov, and others -- men who contributed to our modern-day understanding of the human body and the field of medicine. Nuland examines the myths and folklore surrounding the "personalities" attributed to various organs and presents the many theories -- some quite bizarre -- that were posed by scholars and physicians from centuries past about the functions of these organs and their relationships to one another.
While many of these ancient beliefs seem silly to us today, their influence has carried over to our modern-day lexicon with phrases such as "venting one's spleen," feeling "heavyhearted," and "having a gut sense." The emotions consigned to certain organs were the genesis of many modern terms. For instance, the "sympathy" demonstrated between certain organs in the digestive and nervous systems led to the nomenclature used today that describes the sympathetic nerves. It's also why the churning discomfort associated with stomach acids backing up into the esophagus is referred to as heartburn. The word "sacrum" comes from an Egyptian belief that sperm was stored in this lowest of the vertebrae. Given the mystical purpose ascribed to sperm at that time, it was determined that the bone must therefore be "sacred."
Despite all we know today about the function of the human body, the mythology lives on. The interjection of spiritual beliefs into chemical and physical science continued well into the late 19th century and can still be found on occasion today. As mankind searches for the definition of the soul, it is often assigned certain aspects of our psyches and a seat in a specific organ. Medicine today may be heavily oriented in hard science, but the myths and the magic still have a hold.