By Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain began as a short story about phrenology. I was fascinated by the odd idea of determining personality from the bumps in our heads, and intrigued by the diagrams of crisscrossed heads containing “brain organs” ranging from poetic talent to the tendency to murder. What other (now discredited) medical ideas have we held, I began to wonder. And so began my journey through 350 years of medical history.
Early in my research, I discovered the work of Jan Bondeson. His Buried Alive, which tells vivid tales of tobacco-smoke enemas and coffins fitted out with bell towers, inspired a story about a boy who may or may not be dead. Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, an entertaining survey of medical oddities, led to several additional stories that draw from the colorful histories Bondeson tells–tales involving spontaneous combustion and short hirsute women. Past medical techniques and the contemporaneous debates about life, death, and the soul took hold of my imagination. When I came across a review for Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer, I immediately ordered the book.
Soul Made Flesh, which opens in 1662 Oxford, where the “stink of cured fish hanging in fishmongers’ stalls mixes with the soft smell of bread in the bakeries,” is a history of our search to understand the human brain and the soul–work that inspired the opening story of my collection. From Zimmer, I learned about theories concerning the soul and its relationship to the human body, and how Galen’s anatomy, which was accepted well into the seventeenth century, was based on studies of “lower” animals: the brain of a cow, the uterus of a dog, the kidneys of a pig.
I discovered curative radium in Bob McCoy’s book Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud. I read about Mesmerism in an essay by Dylan Morgan; I followed the evolution of New York City in Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s amazing book Gotham. The sciences that drive the characters in Doctor Olaf are the ones I learned about as I researched the book. Only I have the benefit of intervening centuries to see that many of the practices and theories are ill-advised. My characters believe in them.
Image: Skull inscribed for phrenological demonstration. 19th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.