The Soul of Medicine
Tales from the Bedside
By Sherwin B. Nuland
Review by D.B. Lee
This Tale begins with a Tale within. The Narrator was listening to a Scientific American podcast, hosted by SciAm editor Steve Mirsky. Mr. Mirsky also writes Anti Gravity, a monthly column for the magazine, in which he does a mirthful take on some always-interesting field of research. Mr. Mirsky perfectly plays the role of good-humored outside observer, but it’s clear he knows way more than he’s letting on.
That’s why it was so intriguing when, during his podcast, he gushed like a teenager to his guest, Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, “complaining” that the book Nuland has just released exhibited the major flaw of being too short. Mersky claimed that he purposefully slowed down his reading speed as he made his way through the book, the better to extend the pleasure of reading it. When Steve got around to “interviewing” Dr. Nuland, it seemed simply to have the joy of hearing the stories from the book again, this time told directly by the author.
I understand the crush. I was first exposed to Dr. Nuland’s magic with the release of the National Book Award-winning How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter, back in 1994. He is the Carl Sagan of medicine. For The Soul of Medicine, Nuland chose to use a structure inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a device also used recently by Richard Dawkins, in The Ancestor’s Tale.) Accordingly, this is a collection of rather short anecdotes by surgeons, anesthesiologists, urologists, pediatricians and others, passed on to Dr. Nuland–the act of sharing being a vital part of the ancient tradition of treatment and healing.
In that “vein” (sorry), I relate another Tale. Upon hearing Mr. Mirsky’s interview, I immediately bought Dr. Nuland’s book. I made it as far as the second story (The Family Physician’s Tale) when I made the mistake of telling my wife how much I was enjoying the book, and going so far as to offer: “Honey, you should read this story about a woman being treated in the Fifties. It’s fascinating.” As I was preparing dinner, she took me up on my offer and took up the book, which was not returned until she had finished every page.