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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.