In the first year of medical school students learn how the body works. Then we doctors spend the rest of our professional lives focused on how it doesn’t. Similarly, physicians who write tend to emphasize dysfunction over function. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, for example, often wrote about brain disorders; surgeon Atul Gawande has published bestsellers about medical error and flaws in the treatment of patients at the end of life.
“Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour From the Cranium to the Calcaneum,” a new essay collection by Scottish physician Gavin Francis, offers an unusually upbeat medical perspective. As a child, Francis wanted to be a geographer, and he sees the body as an endlessly fascinating landscape. His essays form a kind of anatomical atlas in which Francis proceeds from head to toe, stopping along the way to explore the lungs, genitalia, liver, and other organs. Each essay includes anecdotes from Francis’s general practice in Edinburgh as well as stories from his varied career — he’s also practiced emergency medicine and obstetrics and worked in Tibet, the Arctic, and Antarctic — with references to literature, medical history, and art. He also provides vintage anatomical diagrams and an array of delightfully weird facts. (Did you know that in some parts of the world “I’d like to eat your liver” is an endearment?)
Still, Francis never strays far from anatomy and the miracle of the normally functioning body. To him, even the large bowel is “a magnificent work of art.” A desire simply to understand the human body, Francis said in a recent Skype interview, was what led him to medicine in the first place
Francis’s lifelong curiosity about many other subjects also animates these essays. His essay about the hip was inspired, in part, by his puzzlement as a boy in Sunday school about the story of Jacob wrestling an angel. “Why would the angel dislocate Jacob’s hip? When I was thinking about hips I remembered that story and started reading some theological commentary.”
How does Francis maintain the sense of wonder he conveys in his writing? “I was a great enthusiast of biology in my later teens, and I had that Renaissance vision of the human body as the zenith of nature’s achievement,” he said. “That feeling of awe, that the body most of the time works, and works beautifully, is something that never leaves me.”