Saturday, January 23, 2016

Q&A with Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is the author of the new book Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum. He also has written True North and Empire Antarctica. His work has appeared in publications including the London Review of Books and The Guardian. He is a physician, and he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Q: In the book, you write about your interest in both geography and medicine. What are the similarities that you see between the two, and how do those interests coincide for you?

A: The earliest physicians saw parallels between the human body and the world around us - they considered the four elements of matter as being in correspondence with the four humours that sustain the health of the human body. 

If you read Hippocratic writings from ancient Greece it's clear that the Greeks believed landscape and climate had enormous influence on human health. 

I think that's still partly true, and would like to resurrect some of those older, more holistic, perspectives. I also think that to imagine a physical landscape through the pages of an atlas or a map is very similar to the way as medical students we learn to imagine the body through the pages of an anatomical atlas. 

Q: In your chapter on the shoulder, you focus on The Iliad. What did Homer’s work say about injuries, and how accurate was his portrayal?

A: There's a story in The Iliad about Teucer, one of the Greeks’ master-archers, shooting down a slew of Trojans with his bow. The Trojan prince Hector throws a boulder at Teucer's shoulder, and Homer beautifully describes how Teucer's arm fell limp to his side, paralysed. 

That's a very accurate description of a martial arts trick still in use today called a “Brachial Stun,” which works because the nerves to the arm run behind the collarbone.  

It shows that no matter how primitive the medicine of Homer's world there was still a relatively accurate understanding of anatomy, and that knowledge of anatomy could give martial advantage. 

Q: You also look at fairy tales, and their portrayal of “sleeping beauties.” What is significant about the way these young women are described?

A: There are so many of stories in European folklore like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty in which a beautiful girl falls into a kind of coma, and on waking, has undergone a transformation. Those tales are heavy with sexuality, as well as anxiety about adolescence. 

That particular chapter in the book focuses on a clinical experience I remember, when a young woman pricked her finger on a rose thorn (rather than a spinning wheel!) and fell into a coma. The coma ultimately had the power to transform her relationship with her family.

Q: Your chapter on afterbirth is titled “Afterbirth: Eat It, Burn It, Bury It Under a Tree.” How did so many different traditions arise about what to do with afterbirth?

A: I think you'd have to ask a comparative anthropologist! It's been obvious throughout human history that the placenta and umbilical cord are structures of great significance, but following birth it's not entirely clear what's to be done with them.

Chimpanzees tend to eat the placenta, and some human cultures have advocated the same thing. But there are many others for whom that would be taboo - the placenta then is often buried, under the family home or under a tree. 

That chapter explores the different perspectives on afterbirth, and then points out that within 20 years, in the West, we've gone from throwing them out with the hospital waste, to honouring them with cryogenic preservation because they're a great source of stem cells.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I've always got a few books buzzing around in my head, waiting to settle down so that I can write them. Watch this space.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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