I am taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour today with a review of ‘Heart: A History’ by Sandeep Jauhar which is the final book I will be shadowing from this year’s shortlist. Jauhar is a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and his third book combines memoir, case studies and the history of cardiology. In the opening pages, he recounts his family history (both of his grandfathers died as a result of sudden cardiac events) and how his own CT angiogram revealed signs of early coronary artery disease. Jauhar’s obsession with this vital and remarkable organ is therefore a very personal one.
Each chapter begins with Jauhar’s reflections on topics ranging from the symbolism of the heart and specific cases from his surgical training before delving into the history of a particular aspect of cardiology. These include the development of heart-lung machines, open heart surgery, artificial hearts and pacemakers amongst others, many of which are relatively recent innovations. The blending of memoir and the historical throughout the book works well, although I generally preferred the more personal passages, the most moving of which are about his work as a first responder in the aftermath of 9/11 and the death of his mother from a heart attack in her sleep.
As shown in many other memoirs, the most significant medical advancements can only be made with some human cost along the way and Jauhar observes that the pace of innovation is slowing after a “golden age” in the mid-20th century. Lifestyle factors related to poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking have long been known risks for cardiovascular health, but Jauhar rightly focuses on the negative impact of other psychosocial factors such as stress, acute shock and long-term loneliness, which is particularly poignant given that the heart is such a powerful symbol of emotion.
I would highly recommend ‘Heart: A History’ to general readers of popular science and medical history. It is an equally fascinating albeit less grisly companion to The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris which was also shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize last year.
Many thanks to Midas PR for sending me a review copy of ‘Heart’. The winner of this year’s Wellcome Book Prize will be announced on Wednesday 1st May.