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The Wisdom of the Body
By Sherwin B. Nuland
Alfred A. Knopf
369 pp.; $26.95
Over 15 centuries ago, Saint Augustine of Hippo decried the fact that "men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, the courses of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering." Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of the National Book Award-winning How We Die, is one of the latest in a long line of physicians and scientists whose work and writings encourage people to pause for reflection at the wonder within. As research continues to elucidate the protean marvels of the body's modus operandi, the sense of awe and amazement continues to deepen.
The title phrase of Nuland's new book, a metaphor for the body's seemingly intuitive integration of its diverse faculties, was used by Dr. Ernest Starling in 1923 when delivering the prestigious Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain. It was later employed by the well-known physiologist Walter B. Cannon as the title for a popular book, and then again by Nobel Prize-winner Sir Charles Sherrington as a title for one of his Gifford Lectures, which later became the book Man on His Nature. Nuland's own emphasis is on the body's intricate communication system, from the microscopic cellular level, up to the autonomic system, and further up to the level of conscious knowledge. It is this system of communication, Nuland suggests, that creates the "awareness of our inner selves" so necessary for the stability, the homeostasis, that keeps us alive. This, for Nuland, is "the wisdom of the body."
A career as a surgeon has specially qualified Nuland to write on this subject, for surgeons have direct, intimate dealings with the body not experienced by most others. "For thirty-five years, my hands have been deep within the body of humanity," he writes, and such visceral contact—actually touching, feeling, palpating, probing, seeing, smelling, ...