Book of the Week

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis. Photo: PA Photo/Profile Books.
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis. Photo: PA Photo/Profile Books.

Adventures In Human Being by Gavin Francis

There’s a doctor whose career has taken him from the foothills of the Himalayas to Antarctica; yet his latest book is not about his own adventures, but those exploring human anatomy. Adventures in Human Being traverses the body, each chapter focussing on a different part, from the eyes, hands, and pelvis to internal organs, including the heart, liver and lungs. Stitching classical texts (from the Illiad to Snow White) with medical teachings, it’s a book surreptitiously packed with information.

Though this makes it a must-read for anyone interested in the workings of the vessel we live our lives in (and indeed, makes you acutely aware of your own body), it should be known that it’s not for the faint-hearted - on the chapter about the face, Francis describes dissecting it to reveal ‘delicate fronts of salmon pink laced through buttery subcutaneous fat’.

Though at times toe-curling in its detail for a non-medic, the above quote perfectly demonstrates the skill of Francis’ writing. His passion for uncovering and explaining how the body works is palpable throughout. In describing the workings of the inner ear, he talks of balance as, ‘a portable sea anchor that moors us in the world’, and bands of collagen in the arm are ‘like the quills of a feather’.

The writing makes this a joy to read, but beyond that there is much to learn. I was fascinated by the fact that, ‘before biochemistry labs, the analysis of substances was often left to the tongue’, and that a treatment for vertigo came about through ‘some creative thinking, a garage, and some lengths of plastic hosepipe’.

While Francis is clearly a formidable doctor, it’s his range of experience and ability to effortlessly weave depictions of the body throughout history with the straight science behind it, that makes this such a compelling read.