Like a lot of us, Evanston resident Will Linder spent time during the pandemic watching lectures online.
Linder, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, was captivated by a series of “fascinating lectures on important figures who had changed medicine, all of them connected with Johns Hopkins, not all of them physicians,” given by Dr. Ralph H. Hruban, a professor at his alma mater.
After the lectures, Linder sent Hruban an email suggesting that the lectures be turned into a printed piece. Initially, Linder envisioned himself in more of an editorial role, with Hruban writing up his lectures. But the stories were so interesting they called for the two men to dig deeper.
The expansion of the book beyond the lecturers also expanded Linder’s role and he became co-author of A Scientific Revolution: Ten Men and Women Who Reinvented American Medicine.
Linder spent more than three decades in the marketing and communications business in Chicago. But A Scientific Revolution is not his first foray into writing. A lifelong fascination with the American West led to a 2013 first-person article in Sierra Heritage magazine about a historic cattle drive in the Great Basin Desert.
A shorter version of the article appeared in American Cowboy magazine the same year. Three years ago, he earned an editing certificate from the University of Chicago.
The 10 who reinvented
The book, A Scientific Revolution: Ten Men and Women Who Reinvented American Medicine, tells the stories of 10 men and women, nine of whom had previously been featured in Hruban’s lectures. The tenth is Max Brodel. A young German immigrant, Brodel was “regarded by many in his field as the most brilliant anatomical artist since Leonardo da Vinci.” Brodel trained as a fine artist.
How, you ask, did Brodel end up in this book about those with ties to John Hopkins? According to Linder, Brodel “met several Hopkins doctors, including John Shaw Billings, who designed Hopkins hospital several years later. He was recruited to Hopkins to illustrate a textbook.
“Eventually, he ended up founding the first department of medical illustration in the United States. He trained an entire generation of medical illustrators.”
The importance of Brodel’s work and “what it means to do medical science visually, as well as in a narrative form” is what inspired co-author Hruban to include him.
Linder’s eyes light up when telling the stories of these men and women, and his history study comes to the fore. When asked if he had a particular favorite, he said he was particularly fond of Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist who worked with blue babies.
Taussig was someone who stood up for her patients. Linder recounted Taussig refusing the fool’s offer that Harvard’s dean made her (to complete the coursework, without getting the degree) and instead attending Hopkins, which had been admitting women, thanks to the generosity and foresight of another of the book’s female subjects.
The one thing Linder wanted to see when he returned to Hopkins was a portrait of Taussig. It’s a portrait that had been hidden away in an attic, as some thought it made Taussig look like a witch.
Linder wanted to see it because, he said, ”Over time, people realized that it captured that intensity and steeliness that made her so effective in pioneering these cardiac surgeries on infants.”
The final subject of the book is Vivien Thomas. You may be familiar with his name: Thomas was the subject of an Emmy award-winning HBO movie, Something the Lord Made, which chronicled his work with Dr. Alfred Blalock and the blue babies. The movie features Mos Def as Thomas and the late great Alan Rickman as Blalock.
The book delves deeper into their work, as well as what Thomas faced as a Black man in the 1940s onward in a field that did not want to recognize his contribution.
This lack of recognition would extend to Thomas’ autobiography, Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and his work with Alfred Blalock. There was skepticism and disbelief that Thomas had written the book himself. Instead, it was thought to have been the work of surgeon Mark Ravitch, who wrote the foreword.
Linder says that he and Hruban “went back to the archives and looked, and we found the original handwritten manuscript, and we compared it with the published book. And in almost every instance, word for word, Thomas had this very beautiful cursive script. And you can see the whole story as it got published. That was a nugget we came up with, but it was important because it corrected the narrative.
“Thomas had been honored by Hopkins and recognized for his contributions, but there was always this aura that his book was probably helped by other surgeons and wasn’t his own product. And indeed it really was his, his story, which is a wonderful story.” You can see Thomas’ beautiful script for yourself on page 266 of the book.
It’s the excavation of these nuggets, attention to detail, and an ear for a good story, that make A Scientific Revolution incredibly readable for anyone interested in science, medicine, history, or just a good story. Mark your calendars for 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6 when Linder will be appearing at the Evanston Public Library and you’ll be able to hear him tell his stories.