cover image Pump: A Natural History of the Heart

Pump: A Natural History of the Heart

Bill Schutt. Algonquin, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-616-20893-6

“The history of cardiovascular medicine has no shortage of strange stories and bizarre treatments,” writes zoologist Schutt (Cannibalism) in this show-stopping exploration of cardiac biology. In three parts, Schutt muses on various aspects of the heart, balancing scientific facts and light anecdotes. Part one, “Wild at Heart,” provides an evolutionary history of the heart and the circulatory system, and introduces antarctic icefish, the only vertebrates with clear rather than red blood. “What We Knew and What We Thought We Knew” takes a retrospective look at early ideas on the heart, surveying how it was once thought to be the “center of emotion,” and “From Bad to Better” covers such cardiovascular discoveries as cardiac catheterization and the origin of the stethoscope (a Parisian physician invented it in the 1810s). Along the way, Schutt discusses such curiosities as the possible maladies that befell Charles Darwin (serious heart disease, based on his letters) and the fact that beached, putrefying blue whales don’t explode from the buildup of internal gases as happens with sperm whales. The author successfully pairs accessible science with strong storytelling, describing how Greek, Egyptian, and medieval scholars helped advance human knowledge (and at times misled it). The result is informative, playful, and impossible to put down. (Sept.)