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The Icepick Surgeon by Sam Kean


Did I mention I love murder? I also have trust issues. Particularly with doctors. Since men took over Women's Healthcare it's been little but abuse, neglect, misunderstanding, gaslighting, and death. My own history includes two doctors who nearly killed me with prescription medications, an inability to treat stress headaches, years of missed eating disorder diagnosis and calling the symptoms psychosomatic, and an involuntary c-section (almost). The "almosts" were not because my doctors corrected their errors or did anything: my mother recognized one prescription was way too high of a dose, paramedics saved me from the second prescription, and I refused the c-section and changed doctors before my son was born. So a book all about how scientists are fallible is right up my alley!

We are in a time when the religious decry our turn to secularism and the secular worship at the alter of science. Our ability to think critically or understand the universe has not improved, we've just changed the name of the god we worship. This is not to say that all science is bad. Or that scientists or public health officials are lying. (Get vaccinated. The Covid shot doesn't do anything worse than the virus itself, and the virus does it a lot worse.) But without acknowledging public fear, however irrational, and the history that has led so many of us to distrust doctors and scientists, the medical establishment and public health offices will never be able to protect us.

Sam Kean is my kind of scientist: more interested in the stories than the experiments. So he shares with us the good, bad and ugly of the people with whom we've put all our modern hope for salvation, innovation, knowledge, and health. From a pirate and slavers who started our basis of understanding the natural world, to the men who murdered to supply bodies to anatomists, to the gonorrhea and syphilis experiments on Black American in Tuskegee, AL and Guatemalans, Kean illuminates the path to modern medical mistakes and dastardly deeds. For instance, the research study in the 90s that concluded that vaginal breech births cause high infant mortality rates and led to medical schools around the world to stop teaching it, increasing the use of c-sections, which lead to more maternal deaths. (The study was not peer reviewed until after all that, and was found to have included still births thus erroneously skewing the data. Medical schools still don't teach how to deliver breech births.) Or hopefully less detrimental to health outcomes, the fact that it took a year and a half for researchers to even acknowledge that women were having worse health outcomes from Covid, and so only just started looking into our changes in menses and Long Covid.

The thing about science is that it is a human construct. A good one for the most part, but made fallible by the egos of those who would seek glory, who become obsessed, who don't see their work as part of the human story and/or effecting it, and those who can't see their biases. Someday we will look back on the Twenty First Century and see the mistakes that have not yet been revealed, the outcomes of the biases we did not or could not address. Perhaps they will not be all that harmful, but even so, they could shape our faith in science and scientists for generations.


Back of the Book:

From bestselling author Sam Kean, comes this fascinating and thrilling tour of the darker side of science-from the past to the present, and even into the future.


In our society, scientists are the good guys-usually. Every so often one of them goes rogue and ends up on the wrong side of the law. The Icepick Surgeon exposes the crimes that researchers have committed throughout history and examines what pushes these otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science - like real-life versions of Breaking Bad.


Many of these incidents have been overlooked in the annals of history, despite their sensational nature. Others were splashed across the headlines of every tabloid newspaper in their day but have long since receded into the mists of time. The Icepick Surgeon provides a unique opportunity to resurrect these stories and take a peek at what drove people to break the ultimate taboos in ages past. The stories range from the dawn of science in the 1600s to the high-tech felonies and misdemeanors of tomorrow, spanning all corners of the globe for the perfect fusion of the thrills of true crime with the most exciting discoveries science has to offer. The Icepick Surgeon combines both the highest aspirations of humankind with our most dastardly deeds to make for a sensational read.