By Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain began as a short story about phrenology. I was fascinated by the odd idea of determining personality from the bumps in our heads, and intrigued by the diagrams of crisscrossed heads containing "brain organs" ranging from poetic talent to the tendency to murder. What other (now discredited) medical ideas have we held, I began to wonder. And so began my journey through 350 years of medical history.
Early in my research, I discovered the work of Jan Bondeson. His Buried Alive, which tells vivid tales of tobacco-smoke enemas and coffins fitted out with bell towers, inspired a story about a boy who may or may not be dead. Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, an entertaining survey of medical oddities, led to several additional stories that draw from the colorful histories Bondeson tells--tales involving spontaneous combustion and short hirsute women. Past medical techniques and the contemporaneous debates about life, death, and the soul took hold of my imagination. When I came across a review for Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer, I immediately ordered the book.
Soul Made Flesh, which opens in 1662
I discovered curative radium in Bob McCoy's book Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud. I read about Mesmerism in an essay by Dylan Morgan; I followed the evolution of
Image: Skull inscribed for phrenological demonstration. 19th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.