John M. S. Pearce. Imperial College Press, London, 2003. ISBN: 978-1-86094-338-6, $82.00.
Scope: This book is a compendium (and amplification) of “space fillers” that appeared one-by-one over the past several decades in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (JNNP). The author was asked to compose “jottings” of biographical details and medical contributions of our forebears in medicine, mostly neurologists, and mostly European. You will encounter the “big names” of eponymic fame-Virchow, Broca, Westphal, Ménière, Binswanger, Brown-Sequard, and many, many others-with their delicious idiosyncrasies described in 135 short essays that make for wonderful bedtime reading.
Strengths: If you want to find out where the titans behind the syndromes came from, who promoted them and who impeded their professional progress, how they philandered, whose ideas they plundered, and how they died, then you will love this book. It is like reading the gossip column, but several hundred years later. Apart from unearthing gossip, the author has done a fine job of setting the historical record straight. For example, he points out that Sir Charles Bell (by the way, not the other Scottish physician Joseph Bell, who was the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes) described a facial palsy that followed trauma, not the idiopathic (postviral) version we now call “Bell's palsy.” There are five wonderful essays on Duane, Marcus Gunn, Holmes, Adie, Bernard, and Horner.
Weaknesses: Just when you are warmed up and ready to learn about the juicy details, you are often disappointed that the author could not come up with much beyond standard demographics. By way of explanation, the author quotes William Munk as saying that “the more successful a physician is, the less is there to meet observation or to court publicity, and the less material, therefore, for biography.” That is true for many of our heroes of yesteryear, but fortunately not all.
Recommended Audience: This book will be especially enjoyable for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in quirky biographical information about the figures whose names we invoke every day.
Critical Appraisal: Notwithstanding the often trite biographical accounts, there is plenty of delightful material here. Nowhere else are you likely to find this variety of nifty information under one cover.
Jonathan D. Trobe, MD
Kellogg Eye Center
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan