The wine-dark sea within A turbulent history of blood

Dhun H. Sethna

Book - 2022

"The Wine-Dark Sea Within offers a revisionist retelling of the history of Western medicine, centered on the quest to understand the nature of blood. Physician Dhun Sethna masterfully weaves together a global story, beginning 3,000 years ago in ancient China and India, continuing through ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment. Blood has always been central to our understanding of how the body sustains life. And without a doubt, the most influential description of blood came from Greek physician Galen, who saw health as a function of a person's virtue. In his system, blood ebbed and flowed in the body according to one's behavior. For 1,500 years, the Galenic model of medicine, favored by the Chu...rch, reigned supreme. Then, in 1628, an English physician named William Harvey proved that blood does not ebb and flow but rather circulates around the body in a single direction. This discovery is often overlooked, but Sethna argues that it completely changed the course of medicine. Suddenly it was possible to talk about the body in purely secular terms, mechanically, as a system of pumps and pipes. With this insight, Sethna shows that blood circulation paved the way for the foundation of immunology, cardiology, biochemistry, transplant science, and metabolic science. It even influenced the development of thermodynamics and plant respiration. The Wine-Dark Sea Within is above all a story of great ideas, a story of bitter feuds and historical collaborations, backstabbing, deadly heresies and perseverance, featuring some of the world's most famous thinkers in its cast of characters: Homer, Leonardo, Descartes, Lavoisier. It is a richly detailed and provocative history, told by a stunning new voice in popular science"--

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New York : Basic Books 2022.
Main Author
Dhun H. Sethna (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xx, 357 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 315-336) and index.
  • Introduction
  • A Wine-Dark Sea Within
  • 1. The Oriental Heritage
  • 2. The Sea Within Us
  • 3. Seeing Is Believing
  • 4. The Life It Brings
  • 5. Body Flame
  • 6. Through the Blood Darkly
  • 7. Knot of Veins
  • Wrinkles in Blood Flow
  • 8. A Different Drumbeat
  • 9. Prince of Physicians
  • 10. Coming to Grips
  • New Hearts for Old
  • 11. Brave New World
  • 12. The Proper Study of Man
  • 13. A Disinherited Mind
  • 14. The Medical Merchants of Venice
  • Air and Blood
  • 15. Hunted Heretic
  • 16. A Eureka Moment
  • 17. Arabian Knight
  • 18. Who's on First?
  • 19. Wild Sea of Troubles
  • Physiology of Circles
  • 20. Prelude to Glory
  • 21. The Finest Hour
  • 22. Closing the Ring
  • 23. Ahead of the Curve
  • A World on Fire
  • 24. Pride and Prejudice
  • 25. The French Connection
  • 26. Bad Blood
  • 27. A Confederacy of Circulateurs
  • 28. Once More into the Breach
  • "Consider the Air"
  • 29. The Goodness of Airs
  • 30. Oxford Chemists
  • 31. Niter, Niter, Everywhere
  • 32. Phlogiston
  • 33. Concerto of Airs
  • 34. Unto This Last
  • Conclusion
  • 35. In Our Time
  • Acknowledgments
  • Additional Reading
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Knowledge of the heart's function is now so basic that even elementary school children grasp it. But the road to understanding the workings of the heart, blood vessels, and circulation was difficult, long, and sometimes dangerous for investigators. Knitting together history, biography, and physiology, cardiologist Sethna reviews how scientific and medical advances were pitted against the oppressive forces of tradition and theology (particularly Catholicism). All kinds of roles were once ascribed to the heart. Some likened it to a furnace that generated heat for the body. Both Aristotle and Plato thought the heart housed the soul. The surgeon Galen had great influence on Western medicine for more than a millennium. But much of his dogma was erroneous. Leonardo da Vinci, anatomist Andreas Vesalius, and others set the stage for the paradigm-shifting work of William Harvey, who proved "the heart moved like a muscle and its essential function was to propel blood" in "a unidirectional circulation." There are some sluggish passages, but Sethna presents a useful and intriguing work of scientific history and appreciation of the arduous path to cardiac discovery.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Cardiologist Sethna debuts with a comprehensive if clunky medical history of the circulatory system. Covering milestones including the early Greek thinkers who first recognized the heart as "a distinct organ" and English physician William Harvey's 1628 discovery of how blood circulates, Sethna details a millennium of advancements as well as a few wrong turns (such as Roman physician Galen's assertion that veins sprung from the liver). He describes scores of experiments--Leonardo da Vinci using a wine cask valve and live pig hearts to understand how the heart pumps blood, for example--and recounts historical controversies, such as whether the soul itself might be blood. While Sethna does a great job explaining how each discovery contributed to the modern understanding of how the heart works, his writing can be distracting ("Eccentricity and a disregard for conventions were at no time un-sympathetic to him. Among the pleasing errors of his young mind was his opinion of his own importance," he writes of surgeon Realdo Colombo), and he's prone to platitudes ("In academics, as in love, it does not do to give oneself wholly"). Still, it's an impressive story; devotees of medical history will have plenty to enjoy. (June)

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