Once Claire was asleep again, the professor removed a chunk of her brain – the ‘epileptogenic’ part – and dropped it into a bin. ‘What was that chunk responsible for?’ I asked him. He shrugged. ‘No idea,’ he said; ‘we just know it’s not eloquent.’
The dedication at the front of this book is simply “for life’s enthusiasts”, and Gavin Francis fits his own accolade to a tee. As well as having been a general medical practitioner in Edinburgh for over fifteen years, he has produced two previous books – on travels in Arctic Europe and on emperor penguins in the Antarctic, respectively. But these pursuits are not distractions from a humdrum subsistence at the clinic; his enthusiasm for the human body, for the people who frequent his visiting room, and for the myriad of ways in which medicine and the arts have overlapped over the centuries is evident to see.
Adventures in Human Being covers the human anatomy literally from head to toe. The first chapters deal with “Brain”, touching on subjects such as neurosurgery for epilepsy (as in the opening excerpt above), and electroconvulsive therapy for depression. Subsequent sections move gradually down the body, interweaving personal anecdotes of patients past with absorbing micro-histories of the development of science’s understanding of the body part in question – “Eye”, “Lung”, “Wrist & Hand”, and so on.
More than anything else, this book is conspicuously and simultaneously reverent and irreverent in its perspective of our fleshy vessels: irreverent in its brazen discussion of what one would not bring up at the dinner table, yet reverent in the exquisitely evocative prose that Francis employs to discuss them. Reproduced in its glory here is an excerpt from the “Large Bowel & Rectum” chapter, in which one patient’s X-ray has “gathered quite a crowd”:
The bowl of the pelvis stood in the foreground, shaped like the two flanks of a valley, beneath vague, gaseous bowel shadows – a Turner-like sky. Rising up through the middle was an incongruous form: a skyscraper dropped into a pastoral scene. It was the crisp, instantly recognisable outline of a branded bottle of ketchup. It lay along part of the rectum and into the sigmoid colon, with the shoulders of the bottle and its metal lid tapered like an arrowhead pointing deeper into the guts.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said when I got back to the cubicle, ‘I’m going to have to refer you to the surgeons. There’s no way I’m going to be able to get that thing out on my own.’
The chapter is subtitled “A Magnificent Work of Art”, and the eloquent, thoughtful metaphors Francis uses to present a clear contrast with the outlines of a bottle of ketchup stuck up someone’s arse make it hard to disagree. Open any page and the odds are good that you will find at least one passage of descriptive text that is almost poetic in nature. The inside of an eyeball reminds Francis of “those medieval diagrams that showed the heavens as an upturned bowl”; the wrist, an area of the body seldom romanticised, is presented as “a tight, seed-like intricacy of nerves, blood vessels and interlocking bones.” An entire chapter in Adventures in Human Being is dedicated to “Afterbirth” – its physical description (“opalescent and rubbery”), the etymology of its various labels, the difficulty of cutting his first umbilical cord, and the cornucopia of ancient customs associated with its disposal.
And then, from the most unexpected of places, an entirely different side of Francis’s writing appears. Expecting “Womb” to discuss birth to some degree, the chapter instead offers a wrenching, six-page account of an elderly patient’s final hours, slowly succumbing to cancer of the uterus. Like the rest of the book, Adventures in Human Being surprises, startles and moves in equal measure, in addition to educating and entertaining. One of the most rewarding titles I have ever reviewed for DURA.