Nobel Notables and Understanding Medicine through Biography

The word “pluripotent” is about to become part of your everyday vocabulary. This week, the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was presented to England’s John B. Gurdon and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka, two scientists who lay claim to a combined four decades’ and two continents’ worth of research on stem cells. A stem cell -- which has not yet become specific to, say, skin, bone, organ, or muscle and can therefore be directed to grow into any kind of cell type -- is usually (and controversially) harvested from four-to-five-day-old human embryos. Used to replace diseased tissue, cells that can become anything pack a potential as endless as their source is questionable. The chance to get them elsewhere is what makes Gurdon’s and Yamanaka’s work Nobel-prize-worthy: Working years and a world apart, they discovered that the mature cell of a living person can be reprogrammed to become like new, open to any developmental potentiality, or pluripotent.

Gurdon and Yamanaka are now in honorable company among medical history’s most revered figures, the long list of names that have shaped the field’s ever-changing vision of itself and, correspondingly, the human body. Our physical presence has been prodded on the outside, cut into, rearranged, or simply observed on the inside -- making our lives fodder for medicine’s fascinating tales. The following five biographies, covering thousands of years and exploring medical ethics, politics, and the impact of individual lives along the way, chart a journey beginning in fifth-century-B.C. Greece and ending up in an operating room in Baltimore, Maryland during the pioneering days of open-heart surgery.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Sixty years ago, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins, the only area hospital that would treat her, bleeding heavily and reporting severe abdominal pain. Doctors discovered a massive cervical tumor and removed it along with healthy tissue, without asking or obtaining her permission. She died a few months later, but her cells (scientifically renamed “HeLa”) turned out to be the first ones capable of being replicated in a lab, and launched a new field of medical research. In an official move reminiscent of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, the HeLa line of cells now totals more than 50 metric tons -- biological matter used to develop the polio vaccine, explore cloning and treatments for cancer, AIDS, and allergies -- and has earned the medical industry millions of dollars, while Lacks and her family remained anonymous and poor. Skloot’s quiet and unmelodramatic telling of the Lacks’ family history alongside the more public HeLa one presents an opportunity to get the story right.

"My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD

A researcher by trade, Dr. Taylor had plenty of experience studying the human brain, and little experience with the people who possess them. In 1996, she got a sudden chance to observe the workings of her own gray matter, which she took as an unexpected clinical opportunity. A stroke shut down her left hemisphere -- the one in charge of discrete, rational thinking -- sending her into a state of euphoria induced by the right hemisphere, from which intuition emanates. For hours, she observed her control center swing back and forth between hemispheres as she alternated between surrender to the bliss bestowed by one, and the need to call for help demanded by the other. Her book amounts to the memoir of a human brain, bolstered by an intensely personal story of recovery.

"My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir" by Jenifer Glynn

Turns out DNA discoverers and 1962 Nobel Medicine or Physiology prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick were less solitary visionaries and more winners of a race to uncover deoxyribonucleic acid’s elusive structure -- and earn the right to publish their findings first. Among the front-runners was scientist Rosalind Franklin, with whom the two men worked closely. Although she was the first to model DNA’s double-helix construction accurately, she did so in the 1950s, an age notoriously hostile to women scientists. She was written out of their official report, and died a few years later, leaving her correspondence with Franklin behind and becoming one of the great unsung women scientists in the process. In this highly personal biography, Franklin’s sister, an historian and writer, captures the climate in which Franklin worked, and rounds out her professional life with an inside look at her years at Cambridge and her intellectual and at-home life.

"Doctors: The Biography of Medicine" by Sherwin Nuland

This collection of biographical chapters reads like a who’s who of Western medicine. From Hippocrates’ Ancient Greece (and the origin of medicine’s promise to do no harm), to the European Renaissance’s anatomical illustrations from the hands of Andreas Vesalius, to the invention of today’s antiseptic surgery and consideration of a patient’s pain, Nuland gives careful consideration to his subjects’ place in history and the ideas of their times. Filled with era-specific details woven along a common medical thread,  this book offers a nuanced take on one of the oldest professions in the world.

"King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery" by G. Wayne Miller

During the United States’ post-War years, Walt Lillehei lived a flamboyant life, filled with the womanizing, heavy drinking and fast-car driving stereotypical of a rock-star’s life. In his downtime, he pioneered the heart surgery methods that make such operations commonplace today, earning the unofficial title of father of open-heart surgery, developing coronary prostheses, and training more than one hundred cardiac surgeons around the world. Slated for a Nobel prize in medicine, he instead was convicted of tax evasion and promptly written out of official medical history -- until Miller’s clear-cut and high-spirited biography wove him back in.