book review · books · shanti

Dr. Huxley’s Bequest

I adore Michelle Cooper; she wrote some of my favourite novels of all time, namely the Montmaray trilogy, and also the delighful The Rage of Sheep. She hasn’t published a new book for ages, which is okay, because this one was worth waiting for! Dr. Huxley’s Bequest is a non-fiction book framed with a fictional framing device. It is aimed at younger people (like maybe 9-14), but honestly anyone can learn from it.

36573851A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful objects – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the modern-day ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Can unicorns cure leprosy?
What secrets of the brain did Michelangelo conceal in his Sistine Chapel paintings?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does homeopathy actually work?
Why did an Australian scientist decide to drink dangerous bacteria?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

An exploration of the beauty and power of scientific reasoning.
Creative non-fiction for thoughtful readers aged twelve years and up.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Young People’s History Prize (NSW Premier’s History Awards)

Goodreads/ Book Depository/ Angus and Robertson/ Dymocks/ Booktopia

I’ve read some books about medical history in the last year, like Pandora’s Lab and Quackery, and some of the facts and details from those books are also found here. If you’re not here for the absolutely delightful quirkiness, then maybe give those books a go. But if you just want to learn about the history of medicine in a history/discovery format, then Dr. Huxley’s Bequest if for you! One of my favourite things about this book, which I think many science books for younger people neglect, is the way that social history and cultural values are entwined with scientific development. Michelle is wonderful at showing how values have changed, and how those values affected the way people learned about the human body. It’s all interconnected, and that is shown very effectively. She also reminds us lof lots of medical advances made outside of Europe—I loved learning more about Chinese and Arabic medicine, and how those developments spread across the world.
This book is all about the scientific method. Rosy and Jaz have to learn to be rigorous in their research, and test their hypotheses. It’s not always very elegantly incorporated, but I think this will work well for younger readers. Rosy is using experiments to solve a minimystery of who is breaking into her room, even as both girls realise that medicine has an impact on real life—it’s not purely abstract. To me, these plots felt a bit obvious, but the message is sound, and the main audience of this book would probably appreciate this. One of the best examples of this was the story of discovering the cause of scurvy–though issues with a small trial size were explored, the basic concept of having different experimental groups with different diets is clearly explained and connected to other parts of the story.
The book is mostly information, which is great. Sometimes, however, the fictional framing is a bit weak, and serves to distract from the information. Some of thes stuff I knew already because my parents are doctors and I read some of those sort of books when I was younger, but there was lots of new stuff too!

The non-fiction and fictional aspects clash somewhat, and I’m not totally sure that the fictional part is always improves the nonfictional part. As with any split narratives, I would be frustrated when information interrupted the story, and then slightly confused when the story interrupted the information. However, because I enjoyed the story, and also liked the informational bit, I could deal with this. The dialogue sections were a bit awkward (though imo they are also Michelle Cooper’s strength, in other books, so I think the difficult categorization of this book is partially responsible). However, I can see that for young readers who don’t like to read nonfiction, this format could compel them into it, or vice versa. These are some things you will learn from reading Dr. Huxley’s Bequest:

  • In Edinburgh in the 1800’s, two people murdered others to sell as dead bodies for medical students to learn from.
  • Edward Jenner was not the first person to realise that cowpox could be used as a smalpox vaccine–he was just really public about it
  • Ancient Egyptians had some very sensible remedies (willow leaves and honey) as well as insane ones (mouse necklaces)
  • Australian soldiers in New Guinea in the Second World War were trial subjects for malaria drugs.

Dr. Huxley’s Bequest is self published, for a number of reasons which Michelle has been very open about on her blog, if you’re interested in that. I actually think that this kind of book is a perfect one to be self published, and I’m so glad that self publishing exists so that this book could happen. It’s cleanly formatted, has cute little illustrations, and is really not less in quality in any way.
I really appreciated the Australian context of the story (it was especially nice as I visited Sydney just after reading this book). The setting is summery and sunny and in a university, and sort of had Narnia (esp. the Magicians Nephew) and His Dark Materials vibes. That studious but playful atmosphere worked really well in the story. The characters of Rosy and Jaz are curious and funny and good at asking questions (kinda like my younger selves!) and just all around delightful.
There are several ways to read this book. You could just read it for the fictional framing, which is fairly simplistic but definitely enjoyable. You could read it for the medical information, which you will learn a lot about. Or you could read it for both, that frayed interplay where science meets life, where curious teenagers meet museums and libraries and slow laptops called Balthazar. It is hard to read a book like this, because Dr. Huxley’s Bequest is, in many ways, a book in a category of its own, and there are not many books with such a set up. But reading this book will make you want to go to museums, wander dreamily around university campuses in summertime, and learn more about the world on your own.

Do you have any cool medical facts to share? have you read this book, or anything else written by Michelle Cooper? let me know in the comments! also, stay tuned for an interview with Michelle Cooper about this book!

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Huxley’s Bequest

  1. I had a professor in college who studied leeches, and used to lend them out to doctors for emergencies such as finger reattachments. The use of leeches in medicine used to be quackery but they ended up actually finding a legitimate purpose (removal of excess blood after surgery). Flesh-eating maggots are also used (to remove dead flesh such as bedsores from a patient before they infect living flesh), as well as parasitic worms (encourage intestinal mucus growth which can help patients with ulcerative colitis).

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