Book: The Mysteries Within

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The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Explores Myth, Medicine, and the Human Body

Author: Sherwin B. Nuland
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

As a veteran surgeon, Sherwin Nuland is familiar with such organs as the heart, stomach, liver, spleen, and uterus. In folklore and legend, these organs have been given “personalities” or behaviors that often reflected prevailing philosophies of the time. Although we think of ourselves as living in a scientific age, we have inherited many of these folktales and illusions, and we are often comforted by what they tell us about ourselves, even when the legends are inaccurate.

In tracing these legends from primitive times to the present day, Dr. Nuland shows how our current knowledge of these organs has emerged from a rich history of imaginative speculation about how the human body works and what role each of these major organs plays. (Our early ancestors believed that the organs were independent creatures living within their bodies.) He illustrates his point by recounting riveting stories of operations, such as a stomach surgery to remove a mysterious substance from a six-week-old infant, an operation on a woman whose liver was badly damaged in an automobile accident, and heart surgery to open a valve in a dying woman. He explains how each of these organs behaved characteristically, then places this behavior in a historical context.

The Mysteries Within is a brilliant blend of myth and science, a lively exploration of medicine, history, and folklore. Eloquent and insightful, it is a book about the human body and, at the same time, an exploration of the human mind and spirit, especially our somewhat contradictory thirst for knowledge about ourselves and our quest for an immortality that transcends the physical body.


Medicine has always contained elements of mythology and mysticism. Various ancient civilizations believed that the spleen and uterus moved around in the body when so motivated, that the heart was the center of thought and the liver the source of mood, and that internal organs were independent creatures with their own agendas. Dr. Sherwin Nuland, who has been performing surgery on these organs for four decades, here presents the amazing story of how superstition trumped science for most of medical history. For example, an early 17th-century Christian monk named Jean Baptiste van Helmont believed that the stomach was the center of human anatomy—the locus of the soul, in fact. His proof? That a punch to the stomach can knock a man out. “Had he been more pugilistically oriented, would he have placed it in the jaw?” Nuland asks.

Van Helmont’s theories demonstrate the faulty logic that crippled medicine for most of human history. Human knowledge of anatomy began with observations of twitching organs on mortally wounded soldiers as they died on the battlefield, and for thousands of years couldn’t move much past that. And even when a real scientific breakthrough occurred—as in the mid-18th century, when René Réaumur figured out that stomach acids, rather than compressive forces, were responsible for digestion—it had to be imbued with some sort of spiritual, supernatural component that overrode the science.

The problem, Nuland writes, is that the human mind seems to have an impulse to “turn instinctively toward mysticism when reason has no ready explanation for the mysteries still remaining in our biology.” Elegantly and humorously, Nuland shows us how we came to understand the organs from which we’ve derived the strongest and strangest mythology—stomach, liver, heart, spleen, and uterus. After reading this book, you’ll be able to smile appreciatively when someone expresses a “gut feeling” or relates how he “vented his spleen.” —Lou Schuler

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