Book Review: Soul Made Flesh

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How it Changed the World is Carl Zimmer’s panoramic tour of medicine, philosophy, and science in the 17th century, primarily in England, centering around Thomas Willis (portrait), known as the father of neurology.

A little too panoramic, perhaps. Too many people whiz by, not all of them that interesting. The ones we do care about—Hobbes, or Locke—fly by too quickly. Zimmer’s treatment of the historical and political context, while obviously necessary, seems rushed and incomplete. The book ends with a hurried tour of modern neuroscience, racing through fMRI, dopamine, emotions, and pathology—trying to tie these developments back to Willis.

What was striking to me was that, on the one hand, Willis was one of the first people to actually look at the brain scientifically; among other breakthroughs, he identified things called nerves. He documented his work relentlessly, and created beautiful atlases with his collaborators, including Christopher Wren. So why did he continue to stick to theories involving “spirits” and “vapors” throughout his life, in the absence of any empirical evidence that they might exist? Why did he continue to treat his patients (he was a practicing doctor) with leeches and odd concoctions, none of which apparently worked?

And how did Willis get so rich? Based on the descriptions in the book, it sounds like he was worth several tens of millions of today’s dollars. Sure, I know doctors make lots of money but how did he make that much?

Overall, though, this book is highly readable and immensely educational. Recommended to anyone interested in the history of medicine and the brain.

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