Characters bring tale of medical history to life

  • By Dinesh Ramde Associated Press
  • Thursday, January 17, 2008 4:06pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

For audiences increasingly drawn to “CSI”-type murder mysteries, Lawrence Goldstone reminds them that crime fighting can be just as gripping without all the high-tech wizardry.

“The Anatomy of Deception” is an intriguing tale of death and dishonesty that takes the reader through 19th-century Philadelphia during the infancy of modern medicine.

The fictional account includes a number of real-life figures. Most prominent is Dr. William Osler, sometimes referred to as the father of modern medicine. It was he who insisted that regular visits to a patient’s bedside become as much a part of medical training as studying in lecture halls.

“Anatomy” is appropriately named. Goldstone offers a number of unflinching accounts of autopsies, some details drawn verbatim from Osler’s actual journals.

During one early autopsy session, the narrator, Dr. Ephraim Carroll, glimpses the corpse of a nameless young woman whose examination Osler seems suspiciously eager to postpone. Carroll begins to suspect that he knows who the woman is, setting in motion a thrilling investigation that threatens to ensnare another legendary real-life figure.

Famed surgeon William Stewart Halsted pioneered a number of surgical styles, including techniques to minimize blood loss and maintain sterile conditions. He also studied the anesthetic effects of cocaine, conducting experiments on himself that left him addicted and that stained an otherwise stellar career.

The real-life Osler was an ardent fan of his mentor. History notes how he defended Halsted by perpetuating the myth that Halsted had successfully broken cocaine’s grip over him. But in a letter Osler wrote to be opened 50 years after his death, he revealed that Halsted remained an addict to the end, if not to cocaine then to substituted morphine.

Therein lay the inspiration for Goldstone’s fictional tale. He delves into complex questions, addressing issues of morality and medical ethics that can be discussed only narrowly here without spoiling an interesting story.

Dr. Carroll’s search to understand who the dead woman was and how she died leads him down shadowy trails and deep into Philadelphia’s underworld. He uses deductive reasoning and keen medical insights to piece together clues in a story that rarely lags.

“Anatomy” is written capably in the vernacular of the late 1800s, and strives to be both historically and medically accurate. It’s not a particularly quick read, but it is intriguing and creative — certainly enough to hold a reader’s attention from the first page to the last.

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