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Saturday, February 14, 2015
The Man Who Touched His Own Heart
Science 13 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6223 p. 725 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1413
Since prehistoric times, people have known that the heart is critical for sustaining life, but its true function was not well understood until recently. The roles traditionally ascribed to the heart included being the seat of the mind, the organ of love, and the location of the soul. An understanding of the heart's true role in the circulatory system took much longer to emerge. In The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn takes readers on a meandering journey through the evolution of human knowledge about this mystical organ and ways to treat its many maladies.
Dunn uses his own mother's recent cardiac problems to set the scene for the story and, presumably, explain his own sudden interest in matters of the heart. From there, he begins with the improbable story of the first documented heart surgery, performed by an African American doctor in an understaffed and underfunded hospital in Chicago in 1893, before going back to the time of Galen, a prominent Greek physician and philosopher who was among the first to attempt to understand the heart's function in the ancient world.
Subsequent events are discussed more or less chronologically, with the exception of those that occurred in the 20th century, when so much was being learned and done in parallel. The majority of the book is devoted to the events that led to the development of cardiac imaging, medical treatments for atherosclerosis, and, of course, heart surgery itself.
Among these stories is the tale of the German physician Werner Forssmann, who inspired the book's title. Forssmann's bold experiment on his own heart, which I won't spoil here, paved the way for a number of new diagnostics and interventions and ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The writing in this book is clear and understandable, without unnecessary use of medical jargon and with detailed explanations of all relevant terms. However, it does occasionally stray into the overly lyrical and cutesy—for example, when Dunn describes the heart as “the Mount Everest of the body” or “that bloody engine.” Additionally, the heavy use of foreshadowing for some of the more dramatic events in the story sometimes makes the book feel like a television drama; however, on the whole this should not detract much from the reader's enjoyment. Even when I already knew how everything was going to turn out (both from personal knowledge and from the foreshadowing), I found the stories to be well told and compelling.
The best part of the book, in my opinion, and the one that's likely to be the least familiar to the majority of readers, deals with the evolution of the circulatory system across a range of species, from sea sponges to humans. This seems to be the author's favorite topic area, and he writes about it without the dramatic flair of his surgical stories but with clear love for the subject.
Despite having been written for a general audience, this book would make great reading for medical professionals, as it features an extensive collection of medical anecdotes and fascinating history (including the occasional bar fight, which is apparently a common way for someone to end up needing emergency heart surgery). I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the heart, in medical history, or in dramatic and improbable stories from the field of medicine.