More Mere Mortals: Further Historical Maladies and Medical Mysteries of the Rich and Famous

by Jim Leavesley

Published by ABC Books

356 pages, 2006


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Medical Mystery

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski

 

Jim Leavesley's More Mere Mortals is a themed popular history book, in this case the history of medicine. In 40 chapters, it tells the medical stories of various famous historical figures, from Moses and Demosthenes to Noel Coward. The author is a retired doctor who lives in Australia and contributes to a popular radio show on the ABC. Clearly, he's writing what he knows. It's a book you can dip into, without having to read it from cover to cover, and the stories are told in a laid-back, chatty style, with personal comments.

It isn't all about medical conditions, though. For example, there is a chapter about Jeanne Louise Calment, a Frenchwoman who lived to be 122 and actually outlived someone who gave her a "reverse mortgage" in which you pay monthly and live in the house until you die. She was ninety when she took on the mortgage and lived another 32 years.

There is also the story of Dr. "James" Barry, which doesn't, in my opinion, really belong in this book, though it's easy to understand why the author couldn't resist sneaking it in. Dr. Barry had no illness, at least none that is described here. She was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to practice medicine in the 19th century, and got away with it. She achieved high rank in her career as an army surgeon, and did a good job in Britain's hospitals, introducing cleanliness that few other doctors bothered with. Someone must have known she was a woman, because an autopsy showed she had given birth. It's a colorful tale indeed.

I am not sure the story of Emma, Lady Hamilton, belongs here either. The chapter about her is mostly a straight biography, which mentions on the last page that -- by the way -- she had jaundice in 1814.

Still, there are some fascinating -- and gruesome -- stories in More Mere Mortals. Having recently been through major dental procedures myself, I winced at the story of George Washington's woes and thanked heaven I hadn't had to rely on 18th century dentistry. Washington suffered from crumbling teeth that rotted away from the time he was 21 until, by the time he was 28, he was keeping his mouth shut to avoid scaring his friends. He had several sets of dentures over the years, held together with wire and made from animal teeth and possibly from the teeth of British prisoners of war. You couldn't use artificial teeth to eat in those days, either; they were just for cosmetic purposes and had to be taken out at mealtimes.

Some chapters speculate. Was Job a depressive? Bible descriptions suggest he might have been. Did Moses stutter? Was Michelangelo suffering from Asperger's Syndrome? (The author doesn't think so, though he discusses the theory in detail.)

There is a good variety of historical characters, including writers, composers and artists. Monet was nearly blind, late in his life, but continued to paint. His vision was tinged yellow, affecting his later paintings. He became frustrated enough to destroy some of his work. There are a number of chapters about royal families and some about doctors. I was most touched by the tale of Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), a Hungarian-born doctor who saved the lives of many new mothers by insisting on cleanliness in the hospitals where he worked. He eventually died in a mental institution, where he had been put for bipolar disorder, of the same infection he had done so much to prevent in his working life.

And then there's the "yuk" factor of Howard Hughes, who probably had a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, obsessed with germs and ironically living in filthy conditions himself.

The book is clearly written for entertainment and it works well on that level. The author is obviously having fun himself. I would have liked a bit more about what effect these medical conditions had on the people concerned and, therefore, on history. For example, was George Washington in such pain from his teeth that it made him more aggressive? Did he make some decisions he might not otherwise have made? Might the world have been a different place if Chairman Mao hadn't distrusted doctors? Possibly, doing it this way would have meant fewer chapters, but would have added to the book's interest. Still, More Mere Mortals is great fun and well worth reading. | August 2006

 

Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.