Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker

Although I could no longer save Adriaen, perhaps I could give his body form in the painting, give his death some kind of reality, restoring, at the very least, a sense that he was a human man and not just a corpse. (194)

18077844In Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel (Anchor Books, 2014), the story behind one of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s earliest successes comes to life in homage to the great artist’s ability to make the macabre positively luminous. In order to write this novel, Siegal, an American journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, clearly did a great deal of research, and her book both informs and delights the modern reader interested in the artistic and scientific world of the Dutch Golden Age.

Siegal earned a BA in English at Cornell, completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and earned several fellowships towards researching and writing this novel. The Anatomy Lesson takes a decidedly different direction from the genre and tone of her first novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008). This debut work featured a young and ambitious New York journalist investigating the mysterious death of a famed graffiti artist and was acclaimed for cleverly revamping the noir detective genre by wedding it to chick lit. The thread that connects her first novel to The Anatomy Lesson is art, clearly an area of expertise and a fascination for Siegal whose journalistic writing also focuses primarily on the art world of today and the past. This affection for art characterizes each page of The Anatomy Lesson. Readers who love art and enjoy imagining the worlds out of which famous artworks emerged will delight in this novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson”

Book Review: The Fever of 1721

BookReviewLogoReview by Kasandra Lambert

In his debut book, The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics (Simon & Shuster, 2016), writer Stephen Coss highlights and emphasizes the interconnectedness between the smallpox outbreak of 1721 and the first independent newspaper in the colonies that would become the United States. To change the course of medicine and potentially lay groundwork for the later American Revolution, In this work of narrative non-fiction, Coss demonstrates how an entire cast of characters, ranging from a minister, to an outcast doctor, to newspaper publishers, to a young Benjamin Franklin were involved in the crisis and controversy of smallpox.

25814342The book describes how minister Cotton Mather, a man with a negative reputation after the Salem Witch Trials, was determined to clear his name by preventing the spread of smallpox using inoculation. Inoculation requires an individual without smallpox to purposely be exposed, hopefully resulting in a milder form of disease. Mather finds an ally in Zabdiel Boylston, a physician who lacked formal education. Coss describes how Bolyston collected the smallpox sample writing, “At first light he had gone to the sickroom, of a smallpox patient approximately twelve days into a regular or ‘distinct’ outbreak of disease — one whose vesicles were fully formed and ripe but still white and fluid, not yellow and malodorous — and using a ‘fine cut sharp toothpick’ instead of a lancet…he sliced open several fully emerged blisters at the side and pressed them so as to express their matter into the end of a quill” (91). Bolyston and Mather have a successful trial, with Bolyston’s son being the first patient, but it is met by mixed reviews from the Boston public. Continue reading “Book Review: The Fever of 1721”

Book Review: The Germ of an Idea

BookReviewLogoReview by Sandra G. Weems

A remarkable feat of textual synthesis, The Germ of an Idea: Contagionism, Religion, and Society in Britain, 1660-1730 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) traces the complex narrative of emerging medical theories of disease and their relationship to physicians’ fractured, fractious religious and social alliances in this period. Margaret DeLacy, a Harvard- and Princeton-trained independent scholar who has written extensively about medical history and contagionism, acknowledges drawing on “a reference base of thousands of books and articles” (xix) over decades of research to answer a single question: Why were medical thinkers “diverted” from pursuing “the germ-theory of disease” in the early-eighteenth century, when clearly several had earlier amassed evidence that “should have made possible the formulation” (iv) of germ-theory developed only much later, in the nineteenth century? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward, but DeLacy tells the story in nine meticulously annotated chapters, each helpfully structured with clearly-marked introductions and conclusions.

25993547Grounding the reader, as well as showing what may have precipitated this perceived lull in scientific progress, Chapter 1 features a historical survey of contagionism prior to 1660. The belief that disease spreads through some contagion reaches back to classical times, although the notion that these contagions might be living agents remained uncommon in the mid-seventeenth century. In England during the mid-seventeenth century (Chapter 2) major religious and social changes during the Restoration caused abruptions in medical education and professions. As part of the Clarendon Code (1661), religious Nonconformists were denied degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Only MDs from these universities were permitted to become Fellows of the London College of Physicians—the Galenic institution that held the legal authority to regulate physicians in and around London. Thus, Dissenters were forced to seek medical degrees abroad and were prevented (in theory) from reaching the top of their profession in Britain. Continue reading “Book Review: The Germ of an Idea”