Great books on science and medicine to read this holiday season

I don’t know about you, but I love to end each day reading a book in bed while listening to music (classical, jazz, contemporary…. whatever) on my iPod. Books and music. Could anything be better? Well, perhaps… but not by that much.

Like my taste in music, my reading habits have evolved over the years. I used to read only fiction by New York Times best-selling authors like John Grisham, Ken Follett, James Patterson, Dean Koontz and Robert Ludlum. Then, a few years ago, as I was happily getting into my latest “kill the president and nuke the world” story, my literary wife asked, “Why do you always read the same kind of books with the same warmed-over plots?”

I suddenly realized that she had a major point. I could do better… much better. I put down that silly novel and never looked at it again. From that time on, I have read mainly biographies, autobiographies and books on history and current affairs. Of course, that includes science and medicine. So, in this, my last blog for 2009, I would like to give you some personal recommendations for the night table: books on science and medicine, written as far back as 1968, that I believe are not merely good, but great reads.

First on the list has to be “The Double Helix” , a “personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA” by James D. Watson. How much do I like this book? Well, it is the one and the only book that I have read cover-to-cover, not once, not twice, but nine (!) times over the years. First published in 1968, it has never been out of print. Not many books can make that claim. “The Double Helix” has also been published as a “Norton [Press] Critical Edition”, edited by the late Gunther Stent (I recommend this version, as it contains additional critical comment and essays by other eminent scientists involved in the DNA story).

What is the attraction for me? Watson tells, in all too fallible, “warts and all” terms, how the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century was made by two “outsiders”. This is an in-your-face account, written by a scientist with literary talent who was, and remains, breathtakingly politically incorrect. As one example, pretty young women are “popsies”. Watson is especially unkind to female scientist, Rosalind Franklin. His treatment of her in his book is appalling since, without their secret access to a remarkable X-ray picture she had taken of the DNA molecule, Watson and Crick likely never could have built the model that won them the Nobel Prize.

Indeed, Harvard University Press (where Watson was teaching in 1968) considered portions of “The Double Helix” so inflammatory that, for the first time in its history, it refused to publish a book by one of its faculty! Atheneum Press quickly picked up the rights and, as it turned out, laughed all the way to the bank.

My second selection, therefore, is a recent (2002) riveting biography of Rosalind Franklin, by Brenda Maddox ,that sets the record straight about the woman and her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Entitled “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” , the book paints an ultimately tragic portrait of a rich, athletic and talented young researcher who struggled for respect at King’s College, London where, in the 1950s, women were not allowed to dine with men in the mahogany-walled common room.

Unfortunately, Rosalind and her boss, Maurice Wilkins, with whom she worked on DNA, did not get along. Ultimately, she left his lab, but not before obtaining elegant X-ray photographs that pointed to DNA’s double-helix structure. Indeed, in a now famous letter to Francis Crick, Wilkins reported with delight that “our dark lady leaves us next week”, thereby freeing him up to assist Watson and Crick in “a general offensive on Nature’s secret strongholds”. Little did Wilkins know that, largely on the basis of Franklin’s pictures, Watson and Crick had already put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her 30s, Franklin died before her true contribution to the “DNA story” was widely recognized and before she could be considered for the Nobel Prize, ultimately awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins in 1962. This book will greatly appeal to those in search of a balanced account of history!

Speaking of “search”, my third recommendation is “In Search of Memory” (2006 in paperback) by Columbia University professor and 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. Like Watson, Kandel sure knows how to write. But any similarity between the two ends there. This book is an elegant and thrilling account of how we think and, especially, of how we remember. Indeed, as Kandel points out, our lives are the summation of our memories.
Interwoven with the science (Kandel unravels learning and memory function using as his model, Aplysia, the sea snail) is his own remarkable journey through life. Indeed, the book opens with one of Kandel’s earliest memories: November 9, 1938 (Kristallnacht) and the Nazi occupation of Vienna that ultimately ended with his family losing everything and fleeing to the United States. They were lucky to get out. Millions did not.

In reviewing Kandel’s book for The New York Times Book Review, Sherwin B. Nuland said the following: “If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist’s career, I don’t know it.” I whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Nuland. Buy this book and find out for yourself!

Finally, Harvard professor Dr. Jerome Coopman’s book “How Doctors Think” (2007) is a medical tour de force or, as Time magazine has said: “Must reading for every physician who cares for patients and every patient who wishes to get the best care.”
In one of the most honest and introspective narratives ever written by a physician, Groopman enumerates the many ways in which doctors fail their patients. In a nutshell, it’s all about preconceived notions and not listening to what the patient is saying.

Groopman’s thinking is summarized on the last page: “For three decades practicing as a physician, I looked to traditional sources to assist me in my thinking about my patients… But after writing this book, I realized that I can have another vital partner who helps improve my thinking… That partner is my patient or… family member or friend who seeks to know what is in my mind, how I am thinking. And by opening my mind I can more clearly recognize its reach and its limits, its understanding of my patient’s physical problems and emotional needs. There is no better way to care for those who need my caring.” If you agree with the good doctor (and who could not?), I strongly suggest that you read the preceding 268 pages of this remarkable book.