cover image The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths

The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths

Sherwin B. Nuland. Simon & Schuster, $24 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85486-1

In this gracefully written study, bestselling surgeon and Yale professor Nuland (How We Die) takes a scalpel to centuries of folk beliefs, superstitions, myths and wishful thinking that have clung to modern Western medicine through its history. The ancient Greek belief (which persisted into the early modern era) that various internal organs impart distinctive personality traits through ""humors"" or circulating fluids is just one of many fallacies Nuland dissects. Plato and the early Church fathers also subscribed to the notion that, at birth, each individual is already completely formed in the seed of the father. Even after Anton van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the sperm cell in 1674, ""preformationists"" rushed forward to claim that they had seen tiny men within the spermatozoa. Fear of bowel stasis and self-poisoning by stool--a recurrent theme throughout history--led to a plethora of unproven remedies ranging from high-colonic irrigations to the surgical removal of lengths of colon. In a selective tour of the human body focusing on just five organs--heart, stomach, liver, spleen, uterus--Nuland shows how, as medical science has advanced, it has slowly disentangled itself from preconception and irrationalism. He says these tendencies are still with us in today's alternative healing scene (homeopathy, reflexology, herbalism, Chinese medicine, etc.), which, he claims, embraces vague notions of immeasurable energies and life forces gone awry. The book's most interesting sections are Nuland's taut re-creations of his operating-room experiences--moving dramas that take us deep inside his patients' lives as well as their bodies--as he walks a tightrope between life and death. Agent, Glen Hartley, Writer's Representatives; 5-city tour (Feb.)