CARRYING THE HEART
Exploring the Worlds Within Us
By F. Gonzalez-Crussi
291 pp. | $26.95
Not long after being discharged from the hospital following my liver transplant, the surgical staples that had been used to close the wound--a "bilateral chevron incision," as the surgeon put it, measuring almost 20 inches--began to rupture, one staple after another, due to severe abdominal ascites. It was a gruesome sight. It looked to me as if a gaping, bloody mouth had somehow opened on my belly. What did it have to tell me?
The doctor told me there was nothing to do but let the wound close on its own, through granulation. Toward that end, he told me I'd have to clean and pack the wound myself, despite its depth and size, irrigating it twice daily with saline and then stuffing it with sterile gauze. I hated doing this, though in truth my sense of horror was suffused with a kind of anxious fascination: I was reaching down into what I'd once seen described in a medieval medical illustration as "the region of occult things."
That's the region that retired pathologist and medical essayist E Gonzalez-Crussi examines in Carrying the Heart: Exploring the Worlds Within Us. In five rich but somewhat discursive chapters--"Digestive," "Scatology," Respiratory," "Reproductive," and "Cardiovascular"--he chronicles how, from antiquity to modern times, the insides of the human body have been perceived, understood, and described by physicians and anatomists, as well as by philosophers, writers, and artists. Needless to say, there's quite a lot of ground to cover here, even given the bans on human dissection that slowed the accumulation of medical knowledge about anatomy for more than a thousand years, at least in the Western world, from Galen's anatomical demonstrations in the 2nd century C.E. to the publication of Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543.
As a result, Gonzalez-Crussi necessarily conducts each chapter as a quick tour. In "Digestive," for instance, he covers the fanciful speculations and "egregious blunders" of the ancients (many of whom regarded the esophageal sphincter as "the king of viscera" and the stomach as "the seat of the soul") through the later empirical researches conducted by 18th-century naturalists such as Abbot Lazzaro Spallanzani, whose experiments--performed first upon a falcon, and then upon himself--showed that digestion resulted neither from trituration nor putrefaction, as had been commonly believed, but...