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Veteran podcasters Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband, Justin, wrote “The Sawbones Book,” a rollicking journey through thousands of years of medical mishaps and miracles that’s not only hilarious but downright educational.
By Daryn Glassbrook/Contributing Writer
Since 2013, the husband and wife team of Justin McElroy and Dr. Sydnee Smirl McElroy have been co-hosting “Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” a popular podcast distributed online by the Maximum Fun network. Now the married couple has teamed up with illustrator Teylor Smirl (Dr. McElroy’s sister) on “The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine.”
As is evident from their titles, both the podcast and the book mainly focus on the often ridiculously wrong turns medicine has taken from antiquity through the present. Sometimes these wrong turns are due to an honest mistake in scientific inquiry, while other times they are caused by greed, dishonesty, egotism or sheer ignorance. Whatever the case may be, the McElroys’ primary aim is to entertain, so the history lessons are delivered with plenty of sarcasm, irreverent wit and scatological humor.
The McElroys make a great comedy duo, with Sydnee playing the straight woman and Justin taking on the role of the immature buffoon. Dr. McElroy, a family physician and assistant professor at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine in Huntington, West Virginia, guides the reader skillfully through some pretty obscure history and science. Justin McElroy, who lacks a medical background of any kind, frequently interjects with mockery, disgust and self-consciously stupid questions.
Their charming banter is faithfully replicated in the book with hand-drawn, Facebook-style profile pictures that “talk” to each other and to the reader in conversational English. This narrative method tends to make even some of the most gruesome episodes in medical history (e.g., research scientists intentionally infecting themselves with yellow fever, gonorrhea and hookworm) a bit more palatable.
The design of the book contributes to its overall accessibility and coherence. Although it jumps around from one historical era and civilization to the next, the book’s numerous anecdotes are sorted into four aptly named chapters: “The Unnerving,” “The Gross,” “The Weird” and “The Awesome.”
There are also recurring subsections, as in a magazine, such as the “Misguided Medicine Hall of Fame,” “Miraculous Universal Cure-Alls” and “Sydnee’s Fun Medical Facts.” Swirl’s original illustrations are supplemented with stock images of historic figures, anatomical diagrams, paintings and advertisements reproduced from Shutterstock and other sources. At 213 pages, it’s a short book that can be read easily from front to back in a single sitting. But you can also dip into any section and be entertained for a few minutes at a time during a coffee or bathroom break.
Fans of the podcast as well as those with a passing knowledge of medical history will recognize some of the anecdotes, such as the notorious case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker who survived a horrific brain injury and lived for 12 more years with his physical and mental abilities virtually intact.
But even scholarly readers are bound to encounter something new. How many people have heard about the parrot fever epidemic of 1929? Who knew that hundreds of cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported since the 17th century, and that there is a scientific explanation (the Wick Effect) for this strange phenomenon?
Just like the podcast, “The Sawbones Book” begins with a disclaimer: “This is a book about medical history and nothing we say should be taken as medical advice or opinion. It’s for fun.”
In her dual role as licensed physician and media personality, Dr. McElroy is well aware of the power she has to unduly influence her audience with an offhand remark. She has no desire to be the next Dr. Oz, so she repeatedly sounds a strong note of caution when discussing past beliefs and treatments that have been invalidated by science but may still seem tempting to proponents of alternative medicine or homeopathy: “Don’t do this.”
But does the medical history hold up to scrutiny? For the most part, yes. As unbelievable as it sounds, there was a demand among fashionable people of the Renaissance for medicine made from the flesh of mummies. And there really was a dancing plague of 1519 that caused its victims to dance uncontrollably until they literally dropped dead.
I did, however, notice at least one major error that seems to have gotten past the fact checkers. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not recover from a childhood bout of polio as the book claims. He did not become paralyzed until 1921, when he was 39 years old. In fact, some researchers now believe he may have had Guillain-Barré syndrome instead of polio.
While you do not need to be a health care practitioner or medical historian to appreciate “The Sawbones Book,” you do need to be able to tolerate graphic descriptions of bodily functions, diseases and injuries. It also helps if you have a morbid sense of humor. I would probably start by listening to a few episodes of the weekly “Sawbones” podcast. If you get hooked, you will probably find the McElroys equally delightful and thought-provoking company in print.
“The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine” by Justin McElroy and Dr. Sydnee McElroy. Weldon Owen Inc., 2018.
The author, Daryn Glassbrook, Ph.D., is executive director of the Mobile Medical Museum.