Irresistible Medical Biographies of Great Writers

Winnipeg Free Press, November 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Irresistible Medical Biographies of Great Writers


IF this irresistibly entertaining collection of medical biographies is anything to go by, its author would make a crackerjack after-dinner speaker.

Each section consists of a whirlwind tour through the life of a famous literary figure from a doctor's perspective, some of it imagined, and all of it punctuated by witty and fun-loving asides.

A typical one is his comparison of Herman Melville's time on a whaling ship, described as tedium alternating with episodes of terror, to watching films by Lars von Trier.

Along the way, Harvard Medical School professor John Ross poses some convincing original theories about the kinds of illnesses (and treatments) they may have suffered from, and how those illnesses affected their creative work. Arguments are ongoing about whether this is a meaningful activity, but its interest can't be denied.

Well-situated to write about both science and literature, Ross is widely published in the field of infectious diseases, and contributed articles on Shakespeare, Melville and George Orwell to scholarly journals as well. Revised and expanded versions of those appear here.

Anton Neumayr's Music & Medicine and Philip Mackowiak's Post Mortem cover somewhat similar territory, though what sets Ross apart is his pure storytelling ability.

Using a fluid and unpretentious style, much like fellow physician and writer Atul Gawande's, he excels at condensing massive amounts of research into pleasurable reading.

One bit of fascinating trivia after the other peppers the brew. Mercury, best practice for the treatment of syphilis in Shakespeare's day for example, was carefully titrated to produce three cups of saliva a day.

Its long-term use also produced personality changes and tremor. As Shakespeare stopped writing in later years, Ross makes his case for mercury poisoning bringing the great playwright's career to an end. …

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