A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities

Jan Bondeson, Author Cornell University Press $48.75 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8014-3431-0
Long before The-X Files or the Weekly World News, our ancestors were fascinated by unexplained phenomena. Bondeson, a Swedish physician who works in London, goes back through European history to reexamine some of the most persistent legends. The result is sometimes disjointed, but entertaining in the simultaneously creepy and amusing way of a carnival sideshow. In some chapters, Bondeson writes as a detective, discovering the medical basis for cases of spontaneous combustion or stories of tailed people. With more outrageous legends (such as the ""bosom serpents"" that could grow and reproduce comfortably inside a human stomach), he is more a social historian, explaining why such beliefs were so widespread. He also includes bios of freak-show stars such as Julia Pastrana, the ""Ape Woman"" whose preserved mummy toured Europe long after her death. Bondeson is quick to acknowledge absurdity, and his wry humor, along with his strong personal judgments, spice up the book. He describes a lurid 19th-century magazine as a ""loathsome periodical"" and dismisses the ""Fred Flintstone version of history"" espoused by creationists who believe giants walked the earth at the time of the dinosaurs. But scoff as we may at such naive beliefs, Bondeson regularly emphasizes that contemporary society is just as fascinated with the bizarre. 71 b&w illustrations. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 11/03/1997
Release date: 11/01/1997
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 250 pages - 978-0-393-31892-0
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-1-86064-228-9
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