How to Remove a Brain, by David Haviland - 4 Stars

How to Remove a Brain is a net-full of weird, wonderful and deeply yucky things that someone with a long career in medicine has heard about, noted down and presented in a single but not quite unified or connected collection. It is enough to make you change your mind about a career in medicine or, perhaps, entice you into training for one, if you like getting your hands sticky.
It’s difficult to talk about this publication without mentioning Horrible Histories, as a lot of the unusual and bizarre medical treatments occurred in the mid to distant past or in far flung places. Sensationalism is to the fore, with the tribe that ate the brains of their dead and diseased their own prions, treatments for various plagues, Wild West quackery and occasionally weird things that work (St John’s Wort). Caesarean probably wasn’t born by caesarean section, apparently, and I thought he was because it sounded likely. Then again, Horrible Histories claimed that Richard III did not have a humped back and that the “defamation” we know from Shakespeare was all Tudor propaganda, then a year later archaeologists dug up his skeleton from a car park in Leicester and it was quite clear that he did have massive curvature of the spine. This book is an education but at least a quarter of the information will be stuff you’ve heard of before and fair share of the rest will make your skin crawl. The good thing is, there’s quite a lot of information you will be reading here for the first time.
The book did throw up one scandal. William Farr, 1807 – 1883, was (it says in Wikipedia, which apparently you should never quote from but I’m being lazy) “a British epidemiologist, regarded as one of the founders of medical statistics” and University College London’s Farr Institute in Bloomsbury is named after him. He is the great example that generations of statisticians now look up to. However, epidemiologists also greatly respect John Snow, who made the classic analysis of a cholera outbreak in 1854 at Broad Street, Soho, London. Snow analysed the spatial pattern of where victims fell sick, then identified the source of the infection as a single water pump; therefore, cholera was transmitted by waterborne germs (Correct – a brilliant and competent scientific deduction. The discipline changed forever). The interesting thing is, Snow’s main opponent, who said that his analysis was rubbish, was William Farr. Farr claimed that cholera was transmitted by bad air (miasma) and the chance of you contracting cholera was related to your height above sea level. That’s the thing about science. Some people get it wrong, then the world laughs, the light of knowledge edges an inch forward against the darkness and over a hundred years later we commemorate people as brilliant when they probably weren’t all of the time. Being a statistical epidemiologist and opposing the most famous correct experiment in statistical epidemiology sounds a bit duff, in hindsight. What a tit.
I liked this book and learned a lot but it is fact, not fiction, so I’ll be passing it on. Possibly in Bloomsbury.


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