Book review: ‘The Man Who Touched His Own Heart’

The heart is at the center of human experience. Though modernity locates thoughts and feelings within the brain, the vocabulary of character and feeling still centers on the heart. Sad people are heavy- hearted. The cruel are hardhearted. When we desire something, we set our hearts on it, even though it may lead to heartbreak.

The heart is also a persistent metaphor for what is at the core of things. To look deeply into a problem means going to the heart of the matter.

In “The Man Who Touched His Own Heart,” Rob Dunn details the 2,000-year struggle to understand the human heart. In it, we encounter the literal heart – muscular, electrical, rhythmically pumping away in health and disease. As we meet those who have struggled to uncover its mysteries, we encounter also the metaphoric heart – the thing that has been at the center of their professional and personal lives, that has both won their hearts and broken them.

The book is a suspense-filled account of error and discovery, peopled with creative and obsessive scientists, daring and compassionate doctors, inventors, improvisers and experts in odd things, including fungus, pollution and mummies.

Dunn is an N.C. State University biologist with a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution. He is also a storyteller, descended from storytellers. His grandmother listened to William Faulkner tell stories on her Oxford, Miss., porch.

Dunn combines his knowledge of scientific method with his impressive narrative powers to reveal the personal and scientific drama behind our understanding of the heart.

He introduces us to electrical engineer Wilson Greatbatch, who was trying to record heart sounds when he mistakenly created an electrical circuit that emitted regular electric pulses. Identifying and then pondering this mistake ultimately led him to invent the pacemaker, work that took place largely in his barn.

Dunn introduces us to Helen Taussig, who wanted to be a surgeon but was denied surgical training because she was a woman. When she began to study rheumatic heart disease, she was accused of “stealing” cases from the famous men around her. She was exiled into the study of pediatric heart defects, which were considered incurable and a certain route to academic obscurity.

Taussig studied one dying child after another, rigorously cataloguing their signs and symptoms, and ultimately performing their autopsies. Collaborating with a cardiac surgeon, she tirelessly badgered him to fix the malformed hearts that she had identified. Her work saved thousands of lives, making pediatric cardiology a field in which patients got better instead of dying in childhood.

Not everyone in this book appears as virtuous as Taussig. As Dunn leads us through centuries of experimentation, we meet scientists who performed vivisection on unanesthetized animals, who chose the mentally ill as experimental subjects, and the scientist who invented cardiac catheterization by first performing one on himself. Dunn’s eloquent descriptions of these experiments remind readers of the impact of social context on scientific discovery.

Dunn’s great strength is his breadth of vision. He scours scientific disciplines in his quest to understand the heart. Readers will discover the connection between heart disease and ash-boring beetles that have devastated Michigan forests. They will learn about sudden cardiac death in fish and why it happens more to us than to them. They’ll see why chimps have little atherosclerosis despite cholesterol levels that surpass our own. By the end of this expansive book, Dunn’s readers will find in their hearts a deep sense of connectedness to the plants and animals of our magnificent planet, and they’ll owe Dunn a heartfelt thanks for leaving us so enriched.

Elizabeth Dreesen, trauma medical director at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, writes The N&O’s Our Lives column.


The Man Who Touched His Own Heart

Rob Dunn

Little, Brown & Co., 384 pages