The Body by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson was published in 2019 and is a very readable and comprehensive book about the human body covering interesting aspects of anatomy, physiology, disease, the history of medical science, the immune system, conception and birth, and much more. The author includes amusing (and sometimes horrifying) anecdotes to illustrate the practical side of his subject which keeps the wealth of information from becoming an overload of facts.

For a nonfiction book on a subject that could perhaps bog down the average lay person, it is very well done. I would almost call it a page turner for a person who has any sort of medical background, like myself, who hasn’t worked in a medical setting for years, but who still has an interest in it.
The Body was written in a similar style to Bryson’s earlier book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, but although I enjoyed that book, it did ramble at times. The Body is a much tighter book, doesn’t include so much conjecture, and conveys a sense of wonder which can be absent in books about science. In the section on birth and the passing on of the mother’s antibodies, he says, ‘Isn’t life marvelous?’

‘We pass our existence within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.’

Something I appreciated in both The Body and the book mentioned above, is that Bryson doesn’t overly glorify scientists. He presents them with their foibles and weaknesses alongside their achievements. They can get things wrong.
In a similar way he looks at certain practices and medical beliefs disinterestedly. For example – routine mammograms, over screening in general, and elective angioplasties.
He also looks at practices in the past where medical science really got it wrong: lobotomies, radical mastectomies, the treatment of tuberculosis, to name a few.

For those readers who live in the USA, he has some sobering statistics:

One third of women there give birth by Caesarian section, and more than 60% are done for convenience; compared to Britain at 23% and the Netherlands, 13%.

‘For every 400 middle-aged Americans who die each year, just 220 die in Australia, 230 in Britain, 290 in Germany, and 300 in France…

What is perhaps most surprising is that all these poorer outcomes apply not just to underprivileged citizens but to prosperous white college-educated Americans when compared with their socioeconomic equivalents abroad.

This is all counterintuitive when you consider that America spends more on health care than any other nation…’

Improved lifespans during the twentieth century have meant that we’ve never had it so good, but the benefits accrued have not been shared equally. British life expectancies have soared overall but today the life expectancy of males in the East End of Glasgow is just fifty-four years! Similarly, a thirty-year-old black male in Harlem, New York, is at a much greater risk of dying than the same aged male in Bangladesh. And the cause of death would be due to stroke, heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

‘A virus, in the immortal words of the British Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, is “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein.”’

One of the saddest accounts in The Body was that of a woman named Auguste Deter. She presented to a psychiatric hospital in 1901 complaining of persistent and worsening forgetfulness. She felt that she was losing herself.
She became progressively worse over the following weeks but nothing her doctor tried worked or even gave her any relief.
Her doctor moved to another city but he kept track of his former patient and when she died in 1906 he had her brain sent to him.
He discovered that her brain was full of destroyed cells and reported his findings in a paper. The doctor was Alois Alzheimer.

‘It is a sobering thought that poor Auguste Deter, if she presented herself to a doctor today, would be no better off now than she was with Alois Alzheimer almost 120 years ago.’

Although I did think this offers some hope for Alzheimer’s prevention.

Radiotherapy was born when two brothers aimed a deutron beam on their mother’s belly to treat her cancer. It was a desperate act but she survived and lived another twenty-two years.
Chemotherapy came into use through an unlikely event. In 1943, a U.S. Navy supply ship carrying mustard gas was bombed by the Germans and released mustard gas over a large area bear Italy. A chemical expert sent to study the effects of the gas on the ship’s crew discovered that the gas slowed the creation of white blood cells in those who had been exposed to it. This finding opened the way for the medical use of cytotoxic drugs, i.e. chemotherapy.

A cancer specialist told Bryson that,

‘…we are still using mustard gases. They are refined, of course, but they are really not that much different from what armies were using on each other in the First World War.’

The Body is a great read with 450 pages divided into 23 Chapters full of lively narrative. It is well researched with 29 pages of reference/source notes and 9 pages of bibliography. I’m scheduling this book next year as part of our science course.

Linking to Book’d Out for the 2021 Non Fiction Challenge.

19 thoughts on “The Body by Bill Bryson

  1. I am a huge Bill Bryson fan. He has written many funny travel books but I also love his other science books. Of course, I also absolutely loved The Body. You have done such a fabulous review. Thanks for that.

    I’m sure you’re just as sad as myself that Bill Bryson has announced he won’t write any more books.

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    • Thanks, Marianne. This is only the third book I’ve read by Bryson & I liked this one the best – that’s possibly more to do with the subject matter.
      We were in Bath in 2019 going through the Roman Baths etc & Bryson’s voice was on the audio-guided tour.

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      • Ooooh, you’ve got so many great books to look forward to. Which were the other ones you read, just to see why this one might be your favourite?

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      • Mmh, I guess you wouldn’t be such a big fan as I am. I have a friend who said something similar. And when I read “Notes from a Small Island” with my English book club in England, me and another lady who had lived abroad for a while were the only ones who could laugh about it. He has a special sense of humour and many regard him as grumpy for that. Read his other non-fiction book about languages or “At Home”, you will love them all.

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  2. This does sound like a very interesting and informative read. I did not know you were in the medical profession. Were you a nurse?

    The statistics are interesting, however, I’d want to know the author’s sources, because I’ve read conflicting sources from surgeons and doctors in England about their medical care and also the number of babies born healthy there.

    There are problems with both socialized and privatized healthcare, but I know that we can get faster, quicker and more available treatment in the US. In the UK and Canada the government determines the allotment of funds and then adds qualifiers in order to treat the “best” patients. Which is why my country is flooded with Canadians seeking treatment because they didn’t qualify in Canada.

    I have a British friend who lives in Dallas. She’s now a naturalized US citizen. Two years ago she got breast cancer and was treated with surgery and chemo and is remission while her sister in Britain who came down with breast cancer around the same time, was still on a waiting list for treatment.

    Also, the number one cause of death of black men in Harlem is murder due to gang violence. They don’t live long enough to get heart disease etc…

    I do believe that more women get C sections in the US and that is probably not a good thing. I think the reason is because of the horrible litigation policies here. Doctors want a good outcome and not get sued. This is a travesty here.

    There’s so much I want to say about your review. On another subject, I have found it so interesting how war has brought to us most of our medical advancements. While war is evil it makes me praise God that He produces good in spite of it.

    Thank you for this review and I hope I didn’t bore you.

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    • I imagine a book about the body would appeal to a wider audience than some other topics. I gave up on his ‘Notes From a Small Island’ because he whinged and moaned all through it. The way he presented his travels through Britain in that book made him seem like the tourist from Hell.

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  3. Mr. Bryson does get around… the last i heard he was writing about hiking, lol. the US is all about image, to the detriment of reality. we’d rather “believe” rants and movies than go to the trouble of discovering what’s real.. interesting post, but somewhat scary…

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  4. Thanks for the great review– I saw this book at the bookstore and was considering it for my kids studying biology this year. Sounds like I need to go back to the store and pick it up. 🙂

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    • I mentioned in the comments above that I didn’t like Notes From a Small Island because of his snark and rude comments about just about everything. I can definitely recommend The Body. I think he tried too hard to be funny in the Notes but just came across as grumpy & nasty.

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