A Deeper Understanding of the Miracle of the Human Body

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Despite millennia of anatomic and biomedical search and discovery, there are parts and functions of the human body that remain a mystery. For years, medical students were taught that there are 78 organs in the human body. In February 2017, that number was revised, with the announcement of a new organ: the mesentery. Until that time, this part of the digestive tract that transports blood and lymphatic fluid between the intestines and the rest of the body was believed to be made of separate structures. Researchers in Ireland revealed that it is in fact one structure, bringing the organ count to 79.


Title:The Body: A Guide for Occupants
Authors: Doubleday
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: October 2019
Price: $28.95; hardcover, 464 pages

Furthermore, for instance, the fact that we have a dominant hand at all, as well as why most people should have that be the right hand, has long been a baffling mystery of the human body. Wouldn’t it make more evolutionary sense for us to be able to use both hands equally? The list of bodily conundrums is remarkably long and, to be sure, fascinating.

Another very long list is that of the published books by Bill Bryson, bestselling author whose oeuvre includes A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Mr. Bryson recently added another book to his collection of bestsellers: The Body: A Guide for Occupants. And, in the few moments it takes to read this review, Mr. Bryson notes that your lungs will inhale and exhale some 300 sextillion oxygen molecules, and your bone marrow will create about 200 million red blood cells.

When Things Go Wrong

One of the bright spots of Mr. Bryson’s new book is that it unearths the thousands of rarely acknowledged duties our body performs as we make our way through the day. And, like all of his works, The Body is a hefty read, organized into 23 chapters, each examining different parts and bodily phenomenon, sparing no detail.

One of the best sections is on the rise of infectious diseases. It consists of five pages that drill into the antibiotic overuse crisis that has created the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and others in that biologic spectrum that kill more than 700,000 people around the world annually. The World Health Organization has sent out a chilling warning: If we don’t address this global health problem, we could re-enter an era before antibiotics, in which any small skin abrasion could become a fatal infection.

Chapter 21, “When Things Go Very Wrong,” is devoted to cancer. After a nicely drawn opening in which the author gives a brief then-and-now look at how cancer was once stigmatized, he wades into territory that needed the attention of an editor familiar with the subject. For one, he cites the famous landmark paper published in Cell in 2000, by Drs. Hanahan and Weinberg, in which they identified the six major hallmarks of cancer. For starters, and not to be overly fussy, he substitutes attribute for hallmark. They are not the attributes of cancer; they are the hallmarks, period. Moreover, the author did not mention the decade’s later follow-up review in which two emerging hallmarks were added to the list. This chapter also suffers from overly lengthy histories and not enough about current advances, such as we’ve seen in immunotherapy.

Another problem is the author’s history of the famous surgeon Dr. William Halsted. To his credit, Mr. Bryson does an excellent job offering readers a window into not only the Halsted radical mastectomy, but also Dr. Halsted’s personal life, including his addiction to morphine. Unfortunately, he cuts the section short, depriving readers of the true-life medical struggle, led by the late Dr. Bernard Fisher, to spare women with breast cancer Dr. Halsted’s disfiguring radical procedure, which had been standard of care for half a century.

From Cradle to Grave

Mr. Bryson is a whiz at relating anecdotes with literary verve, adding to the enjoyment: A roaring 1920s businessman who was a regular drinker of a radioactive patent medicine found, to his dismay, that his bones were dissolving “like…blackboard chalk left in the rain.” Elsewhere, endocrinology is rendered in urbane terms: “Hormones are the bicycle couriers of the body, delivering chemical messages all around the teeming metropolis that is you.”

Hormones are the bicycle couriers of the body, delivering chemical messages all around the teeming metropolis that is you.
— Bill Bryson

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In the last chapter, aptly called “The End,” the author delves into the minute details of the life process as it reaches terminus. Mr. Bryson even gives a vivid description of what happens to a body sealed in a coffin for a long time: “The corpse is still very much alive. It’s just not your life any longer. It’s the bacteria you leave behind, plus any others that flock in. As they devour your body, gut bacteria produce a range of gases, among them hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide, as well as the self-explanatorily named compounds cadaverine and putrescine…. It is a myth, and physiological impossibility, incidentally, that hair and nails grow after death. Nothing grows after death.”

In “The End,” Mr. Bryson returns to cancer, making points about the overuse of chemotherapy in patients with end-stage cancer and some valid remarks about the value of early palliative care intervention. This is not information that readers of The ASCO Post will find new or elucidating. However, taken in its entirety, Mr. Bryson’s latest book, The Body, is worth a read, as it adds a fresh look at the 37 trillion cells and other things that make us who we are.