Book Review | The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean. Little, Brown and Company, 2014. $27.00 paper, ISBN-13: 978-0316182348.

Sam Kean’s first book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Stories of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table is currently on the New York Times Best Seller list. His second, The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code has also met critical acclaim. Kean, who has an undergraduate degree in physics and English and a Master’s degree in Library Science, draws from his experience as both physics student and story teller in his latest compilation of tales from the science department, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. The title, no doubt, will catch the interest of any self-proclaimed neurology enthusiast. However, Kean’s collection of tragic, compelling and thought-provoking historical tales will appeal to a broader audience.

Dueling Neurosurgeons takes the reader on a tour of the human brain, from the neurotransmitters that relay sensory and experiential information to the hippocampus where memories are stored. The book is well organized, each chapter dedicated to a specific area of the brain. Kean offers research on the science community’s current hypotheses regarding how a particular region operates and relates a tale or two of case studies that have helped refine the understanding we have regarding each part of the brains anatomy. While this book consists of more science history than scientific explanation, the reader does leave with a more robust understanding of what the neurological community has deciphered to date regarding the mechanisms of the human brain. His research is thorough, for a non-specialist, and serves as a meta-analysis of case studies that have had a significant impact on the field of neurology.

Any great book requires compelling characters. Here Dueling Neurosurgeons does not disappoint. Kean’s subjects are at one end heroic and endearing, at the other end sad and despicable. He includes tales of presidential assassins, stubborn kings, gifted physicians and ordinary people. Kean himself becomes a subject in his book, as he begins by relating his own struggles with sleep paralysis. His numerous examples range from household names, such as President Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a severe stroke during his tour to promote the League of Nations, to obscure case study subjects known by only their initials. H.M is a notable example; having suffered a brain injury and subsequent seizures at a young age, he was then persuaded to have his hippocampus removed to alleviate his symptoms. The surgery left him with his short term memory intact but absolutely no long term memory. His affliction gave the neuroscience community evidence that long and short term memory reside in different areas of the brain. H.M’s and others struggles involving brain injuries or disease have offered the field of neuroscience its greatest discoveries surrounding the mysteries of the human brain.  As Kean writes, “individual case studies have always been crucial to neuroscience; as with the best fiction, it’s the particulars of people’s lives that unveil the universal truths” (292).

Kean is a gifted storyteller and possesses an entertaining writing style that oscillates from sarcastically witty to heartwarmingly insightful. As well, Dueling Neurosurgeons does not shy away from the candid realities of the human condition. Kean is able to effectively navigate the often disturbing results of brain trauma with honesty, a touch of humor and respect for the individuals in his stories. He ends the book stating, “There are a lot of tales of injury and woe in this book. But there’s a hell of a lot of resiliency, too” (355).

Kari Hovorka, North Hennepin Community College




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