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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-12-01
- Reviewer: Staff
In this entertaining history of cardiac research and treatment, Dunn (The Wild Life of Our Bodies), a science writer and North Carolina State University associate professor, explores the heart’s strengths and weaknesses through profiles of the notable scientists, artists, researchers, inventors, and doctors who wrestled with its mysteries. The book opens with Daniel Williams, a Chicago doctor who performed the first cardiac surgery when he operated on a bar-brawl victim in 1893. From there he offers an expansive survey of “ambitious individuals who believed they could conquer our most tempestuous organ in new ways, and of patients... who lived or did not as a consequence.” He includes the ancient Greek physician Galen, “the most important medical scientist in history,” whose care of battered Roman gladiators and theories on blood circulation guided doctors for centuries; Leonardo da Vinci, whose insights on circulation and heart-valve function were ahead of their time; and the adventurous Werner Forssmann, a Pulitzer Prize–winning doctor who touched his own heart and revealed its inner workings by injecting dye into one of his veins. Dunn also covers advances such as bypass surgery, angioplasty, and heart-related pharmaceuticals in this eloquent appraisal of the feats that have given humans “a billion and half heartbeats with which to do as we please.” (Feb.)
Taking the pulse of medical history
What makes Rob Dunn’s narrative history of advances in heart research so fascinating is on vivid display in the opening chapter of The Man Who Touched His Own Heart. Here Dunn tells the story of a Chicago surgeon who performed the first-known repair to the pericardium, the protective sac around the heart. The year was 1893, and Chicago was abuzz over the World’s Fair. The patient, a railroad worker, had been stabbed in a knife fight at a local bar. The surgeon, a talented, ambitious African-American man, had been forced by racial prejudice to found his own poorly funded hospital, serving Chicago’s lower class. At a time when a knife to the heart was almost always fatal, the revolutionary procedure was delicate and complex because there was no technology to sustain the heart while a surgeon worked on it. To everyone’s amazement, the procedure succeeded.
There, in a nutshell, is the enticing weave of biography, social history and heart-related scientific drama that will entice and satisfy readers throughout the book.
From this opening, Dunn relates many fascinating stories, ranging from Leonardo DaVinci’s contributions to our understanding of the heart to the complexities of developing the heart-lung machine. The book takes its title from an experiment by Werner Forssmann, an ambitious surgeon wonderfully described as “more forearm than frontal lobe,” who, in a dangerous stunt, inserted a catheter in his arm, running it all the way to his heart, an exploit that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize.
Dunn, a biology professor and widely published popular writer on science, says we are far more ignorant about the workings of the heart than we think, and there is much more to learn. That is undoubtedly true, but for a general reader, Dunn’s book is a great contribution to our understanding of the lifelong work of our beating hearts.