Horrorible Review: “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons”

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery book cover

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

Like the title, this book takes a while to read. No one will blame you for reading it a chapter at a time, as I did, maybe putting it down for a day or two and then taking it up for another fascinating tour through everyone’s favorite super computer. I’ll try not to use the word fascinating too often, but seriously, this book is full of marvels.

Filled with delightful tidbits beginning on the first page “(the very ‘mare’ in nightmare refers to a witch who delights in squatting on people’s chests.),” Sam Kean begins by describing his own brain oddness, sleep paralysis. At the end there is a wonderful notes section (where you will want to keep a second book marker), a Reading Groups Guide with an author’s interview, his list of Top Five Strangely Specific Brain Deficits, and questions and topics for discussion. A rebus (puzzle that involves piecing together pictures, letters, and sound) begins each chapter.

A massive injury to someone’s brain is often an opening, so to speak, on a subject like this introduction to a study of the left, right and center parts of the brain.

The man’s name and reasons for shooting himself – insanity? anguish? ennui? – are lost to history. But in early 1861 a Frenchman near Paris dug the business end of a pistol into his forehead and pulled the trigger. He missed. Not completely: his frontal skull bone was shattered and flipped upward like a fin. But his brain escaped unscathed. The man’s doctor could in fact see the brain pulsating through the open wound – and couldn’t resist reaching for a metal spatula.

This book was suggested to me by a neuroscientist friend, who also put me onto the idea of reading only a chapter or two at a time because that’s the way she read it. All the chapters are interesting and incredibly informative, using personal stories to relate how the brain works, or doesn’t work, with deep explanations for the why. It’s a great combination of medical history, biography and neuroscience. First up is how we learned about concussion from King Henry II of France, who became a pawn in the struggle between leading doctors after a bad day at tilting. “Neuroscientist and adventurer” Carleton Gajdusek studied exotic kuru in cannibalistic New Guinea and built a harem of boys. Massive possibilities from the wiring and re-wiring of the brain is told through the early 19th century story of Her Majesty’s Lieutenant James Holman, who travelled the world and conquered the ladies while living with a surprising disability and even more surprising solution.

With stories told in a lively writing style and good pacing that feeds both scientists and non-scientists alike, with a nearly overwhelming load of fascinating stories and information, Sam Kean has crafted an unusual book that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in personal stories and scientific discovery.


Sam Kean: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean: “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons” | Authors at Google

CFR: In Addition: The lateness of this post is totally my fault. Now to go read the book. Thanks for the review Mildred!

One response to “Horrorible Review: “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons”

  1. The title alone has me laughing amid visions of the absurd horror of neurosurgeons dueling with scalpels over my exposed cerebrum. Does look to be a fascinating read, tho.

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