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This is from Sunday. I am hoping to catch up presently and not fall behind again, but let us just say that for the next couple of weeks things may be erratic-- if you don't see a review on a particular day, it doesn't mean I've stopped reading, I just feel like I've been hit by a car. That's not an exaggeration. I was hit by a car in college once, and I remember it quite distinctly. However, writing these reviews seems to have become enough of a habit that I get a little twitchy if I don't, and people seem to like even the reviews I've written when not technically really awake or mentally present, so I may as well do what I can.

Anyway. On our mantelpiece there are two sets of books: one side has things people in the house have written or contributed to (Thrud's dissertation, [personal profile] gaudior's dissertation, my poetry etc.) and the other has things people in the house have been helpful with in some way (the anime publications we've provided research data for, Cloud & Ashes, etc.). I noticed a while ago there was this book on the mantelpiece which I'd never heard of, and I had no idea what it was, so I asked Thrud. It turns out to be by her grandfather, George Higgins, and is a self-published biography of a doctor who helped found the hospital Higgins worked at as a surgeon for many years.

I decided to read it because I was curious about Thrud's grandfather, but also because I don't read much that's self-published, and I wanted to know what the differences would be between this and a book which sold to a conventional small press. Clearly it mattered to Higgins very much, or he wouldn't have chosen to do it, but I wasn't sure whether this would be a case of something which has too limited a readership to sell or whether it wouldn't be done well enough.

A little of both, I think. It's a biography of Dr. Richard J. Hall (1856-1897), the first American surgeon to successfully perform an operation for appendicitis. As a brilliant young doctor in New York City, Hall published several papers on abdominal operations and seemed ready to become one of the most famous and prominent physicians in the country; unfortunately, his research interests led him to the then-new study of cocaine solutions for use in local and general anesthesia, and self-experimentation quickly addicted him. After repeated physical and mental breakdowns, he relocated his family to Santa Barbara, California, where the drug would be less accessible, and became the founding surgeon of Cottage Hospital there (still in existence today). In a piece of painful irony, he developed appendicitis himself at the age of thirty-nine, and, as there was no other surgeon on the West Coast able to perform the operation, died before he could successfully teach anyone how to save him.

I can understand why a writer would be attracted to this story-- its multiple reversals, obvious might-have-beens, and ability to shed light on the state of American medical practice at the time make it a great centerpiece for historical work in a variety of directions. However, the lack of primary source material is a major hindrance-- Higgins has as far as I can tell unearthed everything possible, including Hall's published papers and his few surviving pieces of correspondence, and there's just not much there. If it were all put in order, carefully organized, and explained fully, I think a good writer could get a fifty-page pamphlet out of it, but not a book twice that length. It needs to be a centerpiece and jumping-off point for a look at the history of abdominal surgery, or the history of the early medical studies of cocaine and the way it became obvious the drug was dangerous (somebody do this! the bits of it around the edges here are fascinating and tragic!), or even the history of Santa Barbara. Higgins, however, is not an historian, and his book restates every fact twice, has everything in a jumbled and non-chronological order, goes into great detail on the biography of peripherally involved persons in order to take up space (while neglecting the biography of some people who were more involved and more interesting-- we find out in one tossed-off sentence that Hall's wife was the first female professional saxophone player in the country), and in general needs a good line edit.

So I can't fault Higgins' instincts. But no, this was not publishable. Fascinating, but frustrating. And hey, if you're doing this sort of history, here, some of the legwork has been done for you. Please, somebody take this material and go work with it as it ought to be. I'm not qualified in this field myself, but this could be so amazing.


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March 2017

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