By Chet Yarbrough
The Body, A Guide to Occupants
By: Bill Bryson
Narrated by Bill Bryson
BILL BRYSON (American-English Author)
Bill Bryson’s skill as a researcher and writer pleases the mind but as John Milton noted, “the mind…can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”.
Bryson published “The Body” in 2019, months before Covid19 became known to the world. Bryson’s greatest fear, gleaned from his research, is the potential of a world-wide infection from a flu-like virus. Bryson’s comment about the body’s greatest 21st century risk is prescient. Bryson suggests the United States, and most nations, have not prepared well for national medical crises.
National and international medical crises reach back to antiquity. Among many of Bill Bryson’s insights in “The Body” is his history of medical crises in the world.
Bryson recalls the Bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, influenza, Polio, and Ebola and other outbreaks as examples of national unpreparedness. With failure to prepare, nation-state’ responses have ranged from careful, reasonable, and effective, to careless, illogical, and ineffective.
America’s response to Covid19 shows America’s lack of preparation. America’s national response speaks for itself.
This is only a small part of Bryson’s enlightening research on “The Body”. He recounts many incredible medical discoveries made by science. As with all disciplines, some discoveries are made by chance; some by the exigency of illness or medical emergency, others by curiosity, and yes, some by diligent scientific research and experiment.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955, credited for discovering penicillin.)
A green mold forms on a mistakenly, un-discarded petri dish used to study bacteria.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance while growing bacteria for research. One of many petri dishes had been accidently contaminated. When Fleming returns to his lab, a mold appears to be killing the bacteria on the dish. Bryson explains the serendipity of the discovery while reflecting on lesser known information about Fleming’s life.
Bryson gives a similar description of the discovery of blood transfusion by Dr. James Blundell in 1818. The first transfusion is a success. However, the success is as much from luck as misfortune because the importance of blood typing was unknown in 1818. The first transfusion was luckily from a donor (Dr. Blundell himself) and patient with type 0 blood.
Karl Lansteiner (1968-1943, Austrian biologist, physician, and immunologist, discovers and names blood types in 1900.
Bryson recounts Samuel Pepys diary and his harrowing experience in having a gall stone removed from his bladder in 1658. With no anesthetic, a gall stone the size of a tennis ball was removed. Pepys keeps the gall stone in a glass jar to show others while telling his story. He describes the hellish pain as the scalpel pierces his abdomen.
Not until 1882 does Carl Langenbuch remove the first gall bladder. Langenbuch studied 17th century records of dogs that exhibited gall bladder problems. Langnbush’s experiment on a human body comes from that research. His medical judgment leads to a pragmatically successful surgical treatment.
Mukherjee offers a grim history on the evolution of cancer treatments. Mukherjee details, and Bryson confirms, many errors made by physicians who presume more surgery, more chemotherapy, or more radiation will cure, rather than kill, the patient. Experience shows that presumption incorrect.
William Lane (1856-1943, British surgeon and physician killed many patients with what was called colonic innertia by removing large sections of intestine in the early 1900s.)
With improved knowledge, intestine removal became limited with better recovery statistics for patients.
Bryson notes many medical experiments offered no cure and killed patients in the process. Physicians sometimes ignored their failures and skewed results to reinforce their poor medical decisions. Some patients who did not die, were irreparably harmed by medical practitioners who believed they were right. Practitioners ignored failures and continued to treat patients with medications and treatments that offered no cure but death or disfigurement.
One of many insights Bryson notes is that approximately 50 percent of the cause for premature death in humans is self-inflicted. Poor diet, tobacco use, and lack of exercise are principle causes.
Other chapters cover longevity, predictions of life span, medical symptoms of old age, and the story of telomeres’ role in cell death. Bryson notes some scientists believe scientific research will lead to extended life well beyond current life spans.
One of the most disconcerting observations made by Bryson is that Americans, who pay most in the world for medical service, fall (at best) into the middle of industrialized countries for general public health.
Bryson infers sociological difference between the United States and other industrialized countries affect the health and longevity of America’s population. The specific of sociological differences are left unwritten. Having a national health system in those countries with better health care statistics is undoubtedly one of the sociological reasons.
Bryson’s book is an enlightening journey into the mysteries of “The Body”. Bryson gives a good account of the methodologies and myths of the body’s history and its discoveries. There are many discoveries yet to be made that will tell us more about physical existence and our body’s possible future.