Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels Paperback – 1 Sep 2004
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Please don't stare. Dr Jan Bondeson, author of The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels, aims to humanise his subjects and move beyond the standard exploitation of people with extremely visible medical anomalies. Though one might say that he benefits from our undeniable fascination with the extraordinarily different, he writes brief but thorough biographies that show real, three-dimensional people underneath the hair and horns. His medical understanding rivals his historical acuity and the reader will find the interwoven threads of science and culture breathtaking.
Perhaps most intriguing is Bondeson's analysis of eccentric tales with little or no physical documentary evidence, such as the egg-laying Scotsman or the Irish gentle-lady who was said to have given birth to 365 babies at once. He finds many convincing after stripping them of contemporary superstition and embellishment; motivating greater interest in seeking out non-medical anomalies for deeper research. Fans of good old-fashioned freak shows will enjoy the profuse, often charming illustrations and the final chapter on men and women reputed to eat such delicacies as stones and live animals long before Ozzy Osborne made headlines. The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels will surprise those looking strictly for cheap thrills, though the subjects are too human to treat lightly. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Bondeson takes another look at those whom some call freaks and medical monstrosities. He examines these strange persons sympathetically, with concern for how they lived, drawing on original, often contemporary descriptions to understand them. . . . Good reading for anyone with a strong stomach, sufficient curiosity, and appreciation for the odd touch of wry humor."--Booklist. June 1, 2000.
"As Bondeson looks at the cases of the so-called "hog-faced women," "dog-faced boys," and "people with horns" throughout history, he shows an acute sensitivity to the nuances of historical interpretation and for the humanity of those whose lives and conditions he chronicles."--Publishers Weekly. May 29, 2000.
"A sober, informative disquisition on the sundry forms that humanity can assume and endure."--Kirkus Reviews. June 15, 2000
"Physician Bondeson . . . looks at cultural, social, and literary aspects as well as morphology of grotesque deforming. . . a brilliant effort. Highly recommended."--Choice, January 2001
"A physician plumbs medical history to expose various anomalies of human development, the lives of the remarkable individuals afflicted, and the social reactions to their extraordinary bodies."--Forecast, Bridgewater, NJ, July 2000.
"Clearly and engagingly written, and with sympathy and tact for those persons maliciously exploited and taunted for their anomalies, Bondeson's Two-Headed Boy is a well-researched, humane, and entertaining work that deserves a larger audience than most university press books generally garner. A highly recommended read."--Tom Bowden, Techdirections
"The number of two-headed boys and hairy-faced girls in Jan Bondeson's new volume of miracles and marvels of medicine is astounding! But their stories illustrate how the myth-making of medicine functioned in a past in which the main means of communication was the broadside. Today with the Internet and a rich web of urban legends, Bondeson's volume serves as a corrective. It is not how far we have come in dealing with the anomalous but how little we have changed in our telling of wondrous stories. Great stories; greater lessons!"--Sander L. Gilman, Henry R. Luce Distinguished Service Professor of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology, The University of Chicago
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Thus, he brings a dose of medical sophistication and historical rigor to a topic that is, understandably, often treated shallowly.
As it turns out, not all the curiosities in "The Two-headed Boy" are medical. At least two are psychological only -- fakes.
The history of how fakes were understood before they were understood to be fakes has its own interest. Although the reader interested only in sensational freaks will find plenty of them here, lavishly illustrated, too, the presentation is likely to be offputting for the casual gawker. Bondeson himself has little use for such, whether rude yokels or elegant townies.
Well, it is a dangerous thing to delve into such a field without finding scoffers to point out that the writer and/or the reviewer may be deluding himself about his higher motives.
Nevertheless, as human beings with just one head (if that), our fascination for those with more than one is both very human and, if deftly handled, a legitimate exploration of social understanding as much as of organic pathology.
Bondeson is deft.
While it can never have been socially fashionable to grow up with two heads or covered with hair or sprouting horns, it was arguably worse to do so in premodern Europe. Almost all of Bondeson's examples come from Europe, although many of the older ones from regions where few English-speakers can navigate the libraries as well as Bondeson, a Swede, can.
In the old days of isolated villages, the life of a freak could be more or less tolerable or a hell on earth depending on the attitude of those who spread the news -- whether vicious gossips, humane farmers, greedy doctors or -- probably worst of all -- preachers. Bad enough to be born disfigured without some priest deciding you (or perhaps your mother) have sinned.
That we moderns are not always any more advanced is revealed in Bondeson's discussion of separating Siamese twins, the part of the book that can most easily claim the high ground.
Although "The Two-headed Boy" was published as recently as 2000, it is refreshingly free of po-mo claptrap. It is a surprise, a good one, not to have to endure trivial and shallow explanations that freaks are "others" whose social status is "gendered" or colonized or whatnot. In other words, Bondeson is an old-fashioned scholar, in the best sense of the word.
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