The Body – Bill Bryson

What a fascinating book… offering all sorts of insight into what is known and unknown about the human body. In addition to lots of somewhat technical, scientific, and medical information about different parts of the body, Bryson also shares several engaging and funny stories. My favorite was about an emergency appendectomy on a US submarine called the Seadragon during World War II…

An American sailor named Dean Rector needed his appendix removed. Since there was nobody on board who was technically qualified, a guy named Wheeler Lipes (what a sweet name) was commanded to perform the surgery. Wheeler was a pharmacist’s assistant. He did not know where to find the appendix in the human body nor what it would look like if he did find it. He also had no surgical equipment. But, he followed his commander’s orders and performed the surgery. Bryson reports that Wheeler’s encouraging talk to his patient went like this: “Look, Dean, I never did anything like this before, but you don’t have much chance to pull through anyhow, so what do you say?” What’s crazy and beautiful is that using a tea strainer, gauze, a galley knife, and some sewing tools, Wheeler was able to successfully remove the infected appendix, and Rector fully recovered.

Crazy, right?

Three other fun facts that I’m hanging onto from this book:

  1. What is surely most curious and extraordinary about our brain is how largely unnecessary it is. To survive on Earth, you don’t need to be able to write music or engage in philosophy— you really only need to be able to outthink a quadruped— so why have we invested so much energy and risk in producing mental capacity that we don’t really need? (pg. 50)
  2. The largest source of foodborne illness is not meat or eggs or mayonnaise, as commonly supposed, but green leafy vegetables. They account for one in five of all food illnesses. (pg. 252)
  3. The longest-lived person that we know of was Jeanne Louise Calment… Calment smoked all her life—at the age of 117, when she finally gave up, she was still smoking two cigarettes a day—and ate two pounds of chocolate every week but was active up to the very end and enjoyed robust health. (pg. 375)

So there you have it. Smoke, eat lots of chocolate, avoid leafy greens, write music, engage in philosophical conversations, and when you are called on to perform an appendectomy, channel some of Wheeler’s “let’s give this a shot” attitude.

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