Bill Bryson's Latest Is A Different Kind Of Journey — Into 'The Body'

Oct 14, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 12:36 am

Bill Bryson is beloved for his travel writing, but his new book takes us not to Australia or to Europe or to Iowa, but on a journey inside our own bodies. And it's called — naturally — The Body. Bryson says he's genuinely fascinated by the ways our bodies work. "I mean, once you start delving into the body and how it's put together, and what a miracle life is when you think about it," he says, "each of us is made up of 37 trillion cells, and there's nothing in charge. I mean all of those cells, you just have chaotic activity going on, and little chemical signals going from one cell to another. And yet somehow, all this random chaotic activity results in a completely sentient, active, thinking human being."


Interview Highlights

On some of the lighter moments in his research

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is an extraordinary small museum, and one of the things they have there is this collection of objects that were kept by a doctor in the early 20th century who specialized in retrieving swallowed objects ... sometimes from saving people's lives, but often from people who had died because they choked on these things they swallowed. And it is the most extraordinary collection — you can look at open drawers, glass-covered drawers and see thousands of objects that he retrieved from the gullets and the esophaguses of unfortunate people. And everything from padlocks and opera glasses and just all kinds of things people have swallowed, either accidentally or, you know, by bizarre intent.

On the death of George Washington from a throat infection

He'd retired, you know, he'd won the Revolutionary War and then served two heroic terms as president, and all he really wanted to do was just retire to Mount Vernon and have a quiet life. And he'd only just started enjoying his retirement. And he'd been out surveying the plantation on horseback one day in winter and it was raining, and he got very wet. And when he came home, unwisely, he ate dinner in in damp clothes. And then as a result of that, he got some kind of a throat infection — really probably no more than just a bad cold.

But then his doctors got hold of him, because he was a person of such eminence. Three doctors were called in, and they all came and looked into him. And what they did was they started bleeding him, which was the standard procedure for people who were unwell at that time ... they drained, you know, like 40 ounces of blood from him. And then when that didn't make him better they drained more and more ... And then in the end, they drained about 40 percent of his blood from him. And of course this had exactly the opposite effect of making him better, it made him much, much worse. And he died, poor man died, but essentially he was killed by his doctors — and ... you can't say that was a routine event in the 18th century. But it was pretty common.

On modern medical mysteries

Nobody's ever come up with a truly plausible explanation for why we yawn. Or even an explanation for why yawning is infectious. If you see someone yawn, you can almost not resist the urge to yawn yourself. I think probably lots of your listeners are fighting an urge to yawn right now ... There is no logical explanation for that. And it's hard to think of a way that you could ever test a hypothesis to see what the cause might be.

Almost anywhere you look in the body, you will find mystery. - Bill Bryson

We don't understand chronic pain. You know, if you have some pain that just goes on and on and on, it makes your life a misery. There's no value in that. And yet you know this is a common occurrence for lots and lots of people. I mean, one of the greatest maladies affecting modern humans is backache. Lots and lots of people off work with chronic backache. There is no reason why you should have to suffer chronic backache, or any other kind of really chronic pain, and yet we do. Nobody really understands that. Almost anywhere you look in the body, you will find mystery.

On whether he thinks of his own body differently now

Yes, I do! I mean, first of all, I really appreciate what my body does for me. And I really do — the fact that there are all of these systems operating, one of the facts that just blew me away when I stumbled upon [it] when I was doing the book was that we all get cancer a couple of thousand times a year on average, they think. But the thing [is], only one or two of your cells turn cancerous, and then your immune system identifies those rogue cells and immediately kills them. So it doesn't turn into anything, it doesn't become tumorous or anything.

So if you get serious cancer, if you get cancer in the conventional sense that you know you have to go and have it treated, you've been really really unlucky — but probably your body has tens of thousands of times dealt with cancers in your body already. I found that amazing ... It is just a world of wonder.

This story was edited for radio by Emma Talkoff and Reena Advani, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I always loved the author Bill Bryson for his travel writing, so I was a little surprised to hear about his latest book. It's not a journey to Australia or to Europe or to Iowa; it's a journey inside our bodies. Now, Bryson is not a scientist, though he did do one popular science book with a pretty ambitious title. It was called "A Short History of Nearly Everything." His newest book is called "The Body," and it's its own kind of journey.

BILL BRYSON: You're starting from the point that most of us don't really understand how we work, how we're put together. And the whole idea is that it just - start at the brain, start at the top of the head, and just find your way through the body. And everywhere you go inside the human body, it is a world of wonder.

GREENE: Yeah, Bill Bryson still sounds like a traveler.

BRYSON: I was genuinely fascinated by it all. And once you start delving into the body and how it's put together - and what a miracle life is when you think about it. I mean, we have - you know, we're - each of us is made up of 37 trillion cells, and there's nothing in charge. I mean, all of those cells are just - you know, have - are just chaotic activity going on and little chemical signals going from one cell to another. And yet somehow, it's all this random chaotic activity results in a completely, you know, sentient, active, thinking human being.

GREENE: Well, it sounds like some of the moments were not laborious. I mean, you had some fun. You talked about going to this museum in Philadelphia that is a repository for the insane things that people have accidentally swallowed (laughter).

BRYSON: Well, this - it's one - it's the Modern Museum in Philadelphia. It's a extraordinary small museum. And one of the things they have there is this collection of objects that were kept by a doctor in the early 20th century who specialized in retrieving swallowed objects from - sometimes from saving people's lives. So they're often from people who had died because they choked on these things they swallowed. And it is the most extraordinary collection.

You can look at open drawers, glass-covered drawers, and see thousands of objects that he retrieved from the gullets and esophaguses of unfortunate people. And everything from padlocks and opera glasses and just all kinds of things people had swallowed either accidentally or, you know, by bizarre intent. So that's - I mean, that's a very good reason to go to Philadelphia because it's quite an extraordinary collection.

GREENE: A toy trumpet was one of them, I remember.

BRYSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GREENE: You have to wonder why someone would deliberately swallow a toy trumpet (laughter).

BRYSON: I'm presuming that's quite a small toy trumpet.

GREENE: Yeah.

BRYSON: I mean, these are all objects that you could obviously fit in your mouth and swallow. So, I mean, you don't have to imagine the toy trumpet, you know, it's a foot long or anything.

GREENE: I want to cover a few of the things that we learned in your book. One of them was exactly how our first president, George Washington, died after he left office. He came down with some sort of awful throat ailment. And then tell us what happened next.

BRYSON: Yeah. Well, it wasn't even necessarily all that awful. It was - I mean, he had just been out - he'd retired. You know, he'd won the Revolutionary War and then served two heroic terms as president. And he - all he really wanted to do was just retire to Mount Vernon and have a quiet life. And he was just - only just started enjoying his retirement. And he'd been out surveying the plantation on horseback one day in winter, and it was rainy, and he got very wet. And when he came home, unwisely, he ate dinner in damp clothes, and then as a result of that, he got some kind of a throat infection - really, probably no more than just a bad cold.

But then his doctors got hold of him. Because he was a person of such eminence, three doctors were called in. And they all came and looked into him, and what they did was they started bleeding him, which was the standard procedure for people who were unwell at that time, particularly...

GREENE: Bleeding him out, I mean, just removing blood from his body.

BRYSON: They drained initially, you know, like, 40 ounces of blood from him. And then when that didn't make him better, they drained more and more. And in the meantime, they were also doing things - like, they applied a poultice of Spanish fly on his neck, which somehow was believed to draw out bad humors. They gave him emetics to make him vomit, again, to try and just get rid of toxins that were presumed to be making him unwell.

And then in the end, they drained about 40% of his blood from him, and of course, this had exactly the opposite effect of making him better; it made him much worse. And he died, poor man died. But essentially, he was killed by his doctors, and that was - you can't say that that was a routine event in the 18th century, but it was pretty common.

GREENE: Well, and medical science, I mean, clearly has advanced a great deal over time. But I was just struck by how many things, how many basic things about our bodies that we just don't understand. Yawning is one that stands out to me.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I mean, we really have no idea what a yawn is and why we do it?

BRYSON: Nobody's ever come up with a truly plausible explanation for why we yawn or even an explanation for yawning is infectious. If you see someone yawn, you can almost not resist the urge to yawn yourself.

GREENE: Yeah.

BRYSON: I think probably lots of your listeners are fighting an urge to yawn right now.

GREENE: (Laughter) Right now. I certainly am, yeah.

BRYSON: I just - all you have to do is talk about yawning, and everybody wants to yawn. If you see another person yawn, if you see your cat yawn, you yawn. There is no logical explanation for that. And it's hard to think of a way that you could ever test a hypothesis to see what the cause may be. But that's just true of lots of these. We don't understand chronic pain. You know, if you have some pain that just goes on and on and on and makes your life a misery, there's no value in that, and yet, you know, this is a common occurrence for lots and lots of people.

I mean, one of the greatest maladies affecting modern humans is that - is backache. Lots and lots of people are off work with chronic backache. There is no reason why you should have to suffer chronic backache or any other kind of really chronic pain, and yet we do. Nobody really understands that. Almost anywhere you look in the body, you will find mystery.

GREENE: Do you think about your own body differently now after this project?

BRYSON: Yeah (laughter). Yes, I do. I mean, first of all, I really appreciate what my body does for me. I mean, I really do. The fact that there are all of these systems operating - one of the facts that just blew me away when I was - just stumbled upon when I was doing the book, was that we all get cancer a couple of thousand times a year on average, they think. But the thing is, you only - there's only one or two of your cells turn cancerous, and then your immune system identifies those rogue cells and immediately kills them. So it doesn't turn into anything. You don't - it doesn't become tumorous or anything like that.

GREENE: We all get cancer, but it doesn't - it rarely become serious.

BRYSON: Yeah. So if you get serious cancer, if you get cancer in the conventional sense that, you know, you have to go and have it treated, you've been really, really unlucky. But probably, your body has tens of thousands of times dealt with cancers in your body already. I found that amazing. And in all kinds of ways, your body looks after you. I mean, right now with every breath we take, we're inhaling pathogens and things that could - would do us no good. But your body, you know, is built to identify them and get rid of them.

And it's a rare event when we get sick. It's not a typical thing. Occasionally, things get through, but mostly our bodies look after us. And they do it for decades. You know, your heart pumps once a second, day and night, for 70, 80 years. That's quite a feat.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOLOTO'S "FOX TALES")

GREENE: Bill Bryson - he is author of the new book, "The Body." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.