Thursday, December 5, 2019

`The Body' -- Don't take it for granted -- Dec. 5, 2019 column


Right now, your body may be doing something even more amazing than breathing in and out 20,000 times and your heart beating 100,000 times in one day. 

Every day, up to five of your cells turns cancerous, and your immune system captures and kills them. 

“Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week, well over a thousand times a year, you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you,” Bill Bryson writes in “The Body,” a 450-page, head-to-toe tour of the mysterious and miraculous “warm wobble of flesh” we mostly take for granted.

If you need a break from impeachment hearings or holiday stress, you could do worse than to spend time with Bryson, an amiable guide and meticulous researcher known for his smart and witty books about hiking the Appalachian Trail, his other travels and popular histories.

Reading “The Body,” you may discover a sense of awe about being here at all, an appreciation of scientists you’ve never heard of, and even the resolve to treat yourself better. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“The Body” is a compendium of facts, figures, oddities, history and fascinating characters engagingly told. For doubters and those who want to dig deeper, Bryson includes extensive source notes and a robust bibliography. 

“Our bodies are a universe of 37.2 trillion cells operating in more or less perfect concert more or less all the time,” he writes, and, while more than 8,000 diseases could kill us, “we escape every one of them but one.”

Often likened to a machine, the body is so much more, he argues. 

It “works 24 hours a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze.

“How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder,” Bryson writes. “But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.”

All is not always wondrous, of course. A lot can, and does, go wrong with the intricacies of the body. 

“We choke to death more easily than any other mammal.” 

“Twenty years ago, about 5,000 genetic diseases were known. Today it’s 7,000.”

“Some 40 percent of us will discover we have cancer at some point in our lives. Many, many more will have it without knowing it and will die of something else.” 

When it comes to health care, America spends more than any other nation – and 2 ½ times more per person than the average of all the developed nations in the world. And yet we are 31stin global rankings of life expectancy. Why?

“We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle,” he writes. 

After reading his take on sugar, I took a look at the label on a bag of spice drops, one of my guilty pleasures, and felt more guilt than pleasure. I lost my taste for the sweet, nutrition-free treat. 

A pleasure of Bryson’s book is learning about obscure heroes of scientific research. Most have been men, and many saw their discoveries ridiculed or themselves cheated out of their rightful place in history. 

One such sad case was microbiologist Albert Schatz, who discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic to treat such deadly diseases as tuberculosis.

Selman Waksman, Schatz’s supervisor at Rutgers University, took credit for the 20thcentury breakthrough and pocketed profits from the patent. Schatz sued and received a portion of the royalties, but his lawsuit made him persona non grata in academia. 

Waksman won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alone and when he died was lauded as the “father of antibiotics.” 

Not until 20 years later did Schatz finally receive recognition. The American Society of Microbiology gave him its highest honor -- the Selman A. Waksman medal. 

“Life sometimes really is very unfair,” Bryson observes.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. I had read some other reviews of Bryson's book, but yours made me sure to buy a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Hi Dan, Thanks. I think you'll enjoy it. It's a good read.