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A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities

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About the Author

Jan Bondeson, a physician, holds a Ph.D. in experimental medicine and works at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London.


YA‘This clutch of essays covers topics one is likely to see in supermarket tabloids: spontaneous combustion, premature burial, tailed people, and serpents living within the body. Bondeson presents these topics in their historical perspective, based on copious research and illustrated with archival drawings, and then explains the more likely cause for the phenomenon or belief. His dry wit makes for entertaining reading. The remaining essays describe some documented cases of human oddities‘a giant, a two-headed boy, an extremely hairy and deformed woman, and a child no larger than a new-born infant‘and illustrate the physical and emotional baggage carried by these unfortunate people. Notes for additional reading are provided for each chapter; there is no index. Thus, accessibility as a research tool will rely on detailed subject cataloguing, but the book is worth the effort because it provides teens with a source for accurate medical information about some unusual human conditions and ideas.‘Carol DeAngelo, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA

Long before The-X Files or the Weekly World News, our ancestors were fascinated by unexplained phenomena. Bondeson, a Swedish physician who works in London, goes back through European history to reexamine some of the most persistent legends. The result is sometimes disjointed, but entertaining in the simultaneously creepy and amusing way of a carnival sideshow. In some chapters, Bondeson writes as a detective, discovering the medical basis for cases of spontaneous combustion or stories of tailed people. With more outrageous legends (such as the "bosom serpents" that could grow and reproduce comfortably inside a human stomach), he is more a social historian, explaining why such beliefs were so widespread. He also includes bios of freak-show stars such as Julia Pastrana, the "Ape Woman" whose preserved mummy toured Europe long after her death. Bondeson is quick to acknowledge absurdity, and his wry humor, along with his strong personal judgments, spice up the book. He describes a lurid 19th-century magazine as a "loathsome periodical" and dismisses the "Fred Flintstone version of history" espoused by creationists who believe giants walked the earth at the time of the dinosaurs. But scoff as we may at such naïve beliefs, Bondeson regularly emphasizes that contemporary society is just as fascinated with the bizarre. 71 b&w illustrations. (Nov.)

The title of this work is also a metaphor for Bondeson's study, invoking a trip to an old-fashioned museum where visitors gaze in amazement at displays of "the odd, the bizarre, and the unexpected." Bondeson "exhibits" such specimens as the Ape Woman, the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal, giants, and people with tails. Other gruesome medical mysteries appear as well, including premature burial, spontaneous human combustion, and stomach-infesting snakes. Bondeson, a physician and medical researcher, regards his exhibits with a careful scientist's eye, discovering misinterpreted evidence, tragic genetic mutations, and, occasionally, outright fraud. Bondeson's book, unfortunately, shares one of the same drawbacks that doomed the museums he celebrates: Although individual exhibits are interesting and entertaining, chapters read like discrete journal articles, and the thoughtful visitor may yearn for more coherence and context that an introduction or conclusion could have provided. Nevertheless, this is a useful addition to medical history collections.‘Kathleen Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida-St. Petersburg Lib.

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