“Where there is danger, someone must go first”

Book review

Cover of paperback edition

My margin notes for Trevor Norton’s Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth go something like this: “Ew!” “OMG!” “Gross!” “LOL!” “Wow!” “Eek!” “Oops…” “Ha ha!” and “oh, barf…”

In other words, if you’re the type of person who enjoys eating while you read, this book is probably not for you.

But if you’re willing to have your tea and toast later, and tackle the book on its own terms (preferably far away from food or from people who will post pictures of your horrified facial expressions on YouTube), then you’re in for a heck of a good read.

Not recommended while reading this book...

Norton, a lifelong scuba diver and marine biologist, is an honorary Research Fellow and the former Chair of Marine Biology at the University of Liverpool. In those capacities alone he wrote over 160 articles and books on his ecological research as well as countless popular articles. After his retirement he made the logical jump to writing literary non-fiction and popular science.

His earlier books, Under Water to Get out of the Rain, Reflections on a Summer Sea, and Stars Beneath the Sea, focus on pioneers of the diving world, some of whom he knew personally through his own teaching and research.

In Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth, Norton turns his attention to pioneers of the scientific world past and present—doctors, engineers, biologists, pilots, and the like—who have experimented on themselves (really!) rather than exposing others to possible harm or death. (He states in the preface that he has only once experimented on himself, an ill-fated but mostly harmless venture involving a dive and a bottle of Mazola cooking oil.)

The result is a book that is by turns horrifying, hilarious, eye-popping, and packed with enough facts and information to qualify as a pre-med study guide. It will come as no surprise that he has been, more than once, favourably compared to travel writer Bill Bryson.

Mmmm... heliobacter!

The first 10 chapters are devoted mainly to medical experimenters, and Norton gleefully trots us through an exploration of subjects such venereal disease, early attempts at surgery and transplantation (this is where I initially lost my lunch), intestinal parasites, radiation, vitamin deficiencies, and the discovery of drugs and diseases that seem like no-brainers today but were ground-breaking in their time.

He has a particular knack for simplifying complicated concepts—his explainer on blood types, for example, amounts to a succinct half-paragraph or so, and I wish I’d had something like it in front of me when I was studying for my Grade 12 physiology exam.

He includes some notable “oops” throughout history—radiation tests conducted upwind of unwitting population centres, for example, and several cases of researchers fatally mistaking live bacteria and viruses for dead ones (“Did you get those anthrax samples I sent you?… Hello?”). These are not only instructive but remarkable in their ability to stand out in a book already devoted to people who drank hydrochloric acid and infected themselves with syphilis for a living.

Lest we get too comfy, however, Norton reminds us that in many respects we’re no safer from quacks now than we were in the Elizabethan age. He cites the internet as a double-edged sword in this regard, providing patients with more information than ever before, but also providing a platform for charlatans and worse.

"How are you feeling, Monsieur?"
"Better. ... Better get a bucket!"

He speaks strongly to the need for informed consent; this was the prime motivator for the subjects of his book, who refused to put others through procedures they wouldn’t undergo themselves. His horrifying examples of its absence include the use of orphaned babies as guinea pigs as recently as the 1950s, and the testing in 2006 of a substance called TGN1412 that sickened and nearly killed eight of its subjects.

The last five chapters are almost a relief, switching from medical horrors to the comparatively workaday adventures of bomb squads, test pilots, shark experts and deep-water explorers. His section on Chuck Yeager, who was the first pilot to travel faster than sound, reads like the script of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

Norton’s book is (naturally) painstakingly researched and presented in a collegial, often wryly humorous tone that speaks to his gifts as a lecturer and teacher. Each chapter flows naturally into the next, or stands happily on its own if you’re interested in a particular subject.

The only shortcoming I could find (other than the aforementioned appetite-killing nature of the material) was the absence of a Table of Contents at the beginning. Given the meticulous index and bibliography, this is a peculiar omission, particularly in a science-oriented book, and especially one in which the chapter titles themselves would induce even the most reluctant reader to dive in. Norton had me at “He Came, He Sawed, He Chancred,” and the rest is history.

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth is a rollicking good read. You’ll laugh, you’ll gag, your eyebrows will shoot up into your hair, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to grab friends, colleagues, or even complete strangers as you turn the pages and go, “Oh, wait till you hear THIS!”

Just keep a basin handy.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Full Title: Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth: A witty celebration of the great eccentrics who have performed dangerous acts of self-experimentation
Author: Trevor Norton
Publisher: Arrow Books
Paper: 404 pages
Price: $21.95 CDN

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