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Tuesday, February 21, 2023



This is no dry and dusty Biology textbook. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts and figures, finely balanced with fun, fable, folklore and forensic details. (Reviewed by Dee Stead)

“Most of the best technology that exists on Earth is right here inside us, and everybody takes It almost completely for granted”. This is what Dr Ben Ollivere, a professor of Trauma surgery told Bill Bryson during an interview.  Bryson’s book The Body Illustrated: A Guide for Occupants takes us on this exploration, from top to toe, from the skin on the outside to the deepest, darkest depths of our inner organs and into the chemistry controlling every function.

Familiar as I am with Bill Bryson’s work through his witty, informative and thoroughly engaging travel books, this is the first of his scientific books that I have encountered. Here the wit and style is just as present, the subject matter every bit as entertaining. This is no dry and dusty Biology textbook. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts and figures, finely balanced with fun, fable, folklore and forensic details.

The title boasts of Illustrations, and this is no idle claim. Every chapter features relevant articles, photographs of scientists, surgeons and famous figures in each field, plus a wealth of colour photomicrographs, electron micrographs, sketches, x-rays plates and detailed photographs of every system, organ and tissue involved.

An unexpected and delightful addition is the inclusion of beautifully-reproduced and relevant paintings by artists through the ages. My particular favourite is in the chapter entitled Food, Glorious Food it is a portrait by the Italian painter Alessandro Sani, happily entitled simply The Tasting. Google it – you are in for a joyful delightful treat!!

Reading an early chapter on Microbes, the viruses, bacteria, protists and fungi that occur on and in our bodies, I found just trying to imagine the high numbers and statistics quoted so eye-wateringly astounding that I got a headache! All of these microscopic entities in our bodies, some vital, some helpful, some harmful and others, seemingly, just along for the ride! All this information presented in reader-friendly, comprehensive, scientifically accurate and thoroughly researched and yet accessible language.

Anecdotes abound through the chapters, some amazing, many amusing and some so outrageously horrible that I could not repress a somewhat hysterical giggle-and then felt immediately ashamed of my reaction – take for example, the description of the removal of a bladder-stone (like a kidney stone) in 1658 from the bladder of Samuel Pepys! This had me cringing in my chair, and worse was to look at the illustrations of the surgical instruments used in such procedures, which looked more like tools to be utilised in agricultural practise than implements for surgical procedures on human flesh!

The chapter called The Chemistry Department is a particularly interesting one, dealing as it does with hormones. Quoting John Wass, a professor of Endocrinology at Oxford University, Bryson writes: “Hormones were the last major system in the body to be discovered, and we are still discovering more all the time … it is really a terribly exciting field”. This chapter sheds more contemporary light on the production and effects of hormones, but lays no claims on any deeper understanding of malfunctions or treatments to date.

I found reading the chapter called In the Dissecting Room very disturbing – the procurement of cadavers for teaching purposes was a grim read, and I skimmed it for my own peace of mind.

Then there is Food, Glorious Food and The Immune System, Reproduction, Circulation, The Nervous System – you name it, it is here. A lot of the material highlights controversies, particularly the tales of the lack of consensus in research regarding nutritional health, in this day and age.

Evidence abounds that Bryson has done the proverbial homework – he has interviewed scientists and experts in many fields worldwide to collect his material.  This is a BIG book – hard-covered, 560 pages, good quality paper, 23 fascinating chapters, easy to read – but it is HEAVY! You need to be comfortably seated when reading, not propped up against your pillows for a “little light reading” before you to sleep!! – Dee Stead

The Body Illustrated: A Guide for Occupants is published by Penguin Random House South Africa: ISBN: 9780857527691