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The Uncertain Art

Thoughts on a Life in Medicine


Sherwin B. Nuland (View Bio)
Hardcover: Random House, 2008.

The Uncertain Art

THE UNCERTAIN ART is a superb collection of essays about the vital mix of expertise, intuition, sound judgment, and pure chance that plays a part in a doctor's practice. Drawing from history, the recent past, and his own life, Sherwin Nuland tells compelling stories in which doctors have had to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Topics include the primitive (and sometimes illegal) procedures doctors once practiced with good intentions; the curious "cures" for irregularity touted by people from the ancient Egyptians to the cereal titan John Harvey Kellogg and bodybuilder Charles Atlas; and healers grappling with today's complex moral and ethical quandaries, from cloning to gene therapy to the adoption of Eastern practices like acupuncture. Nuland also recounts his most dramatic experiences in a forty-year medical career, such as his profound friendship with an unforgettable (and sadly doomed) heart patient. Behind these inspiring accounts always lie the mysteries of the human body and human nature, the manner in which the ill can will themselves back to health, and the odd and essential interactions between a body's own healing mechanisms and a doctor's prescriptions. These are gems from a man who has spent his professional life acting amidst ambiguites and sharing what he has learned.

"The celebrated writer-physician Sherwin B. Nuland—a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, the author of nine previous books, the winner of the National Book Award—is a believer in miracles. Not the parting-of-the-Red-Sea kind of miracles that suspend physical laws, but phenomena and events that can’t be explained by current scientific knowledge, and perhaps never will be…. In THE UNCERTAIN ART a delightful, companionable collection of occasional articles … Dr. Nuland feels free to follow his interests where they lead him—into medical history, etymology, even art criticism…. But the most engaging and thought-provoking articles deal with subjects that are mysterious, unsettling. These pieces can be enjoyed for the simple sci-fi pleasure of encountering the inexplicable. Dr. Nuland, however, has a larger purpose in mind: to undermine smug certainties about modern science…. There’s much to be learned from these brief, erudite pieces…. It’s ideal airport or bathroom reading." — Barry Gewen, The New York Times

"Every medical specialty in every hospital has its ‘professor.’ Often the oldest and usually the most experienced, the professor is the doctor you call when you can’t come up with a diagnosis…. The professor is the doctor’s doctor, the go-to person…. In the world of medical writing, Sherwin Nuland is one of those professors. A National Book Award winner, he has tackled every conceivable life enigma in his writing, death and aging among them. It would stand to reason, then, that this professor’s take on his 40-year career in medicine would be quite the read. It is. Insightful and profoundly humane, THE UNCERTAIN ART stands solidly among Nuland’s better works. " — Pauline Chen, Washington Post Book World

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