Book review: Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulpby Timothy Lane   1/27/14
Mary Roach has written a number of books dealing with odd forms of scientific research. Her latest presents a series of adventures in gastroenterological studies. She realizes that people tend to find such things gross (and the exact tining of when that happens for something like just-eaten food is interesting), but she also hopes (successfully in my case) that people will find these various studies as interesting as she does (in addition to at least a little bit gross).

One of the chapters deals with a topic I was somewhat familiar with from my reading as a child. (I’m sure one or both of my parents hoped I’d take up a medical career given my enduring interest in various medical and physiological matters. As far as I can recall, however, it never seriously occurred to me.) A French-Canadian trapper named Alexis Saint Martin was wounded – everyone thought mortally – in the stomach in 1822. An army doctor, William Beaumont, was able to keep him alive even as the wound become a permanent fistula. This enabled Beaumont to do quite a bit of research on his patient, who in fact had no trobule staying alive and active for a long time (he outlived Beaumont, in fact, though it certainly helped that Beaumont was a good bit older to begin with). Some of the details (such as Beaumont licking St. Martin’s stomach lining) probably didn’t make it into the article I read; nor did it discuss the relations between the two men (perhaps a bit difficult at times – but St. Martin could have left Beaumont and nevertheless stayed with him for years as a paid servant). Roach is uncertain how much was really learned from all of Beaumont’s investigation, but if nothing else he was , though the another source of information.

Of course, there are some interesting questions that also didn’t come up in the version I first read. It seems that Beaumont at an early stage (perhaps as soon as it was clear that St. Martin would live) realized the possibilities for research. Did he do his best to cure St. Martin — and in particular to heal (by closing up) the gastric fistula that enabled him to become famous, at least among digestive system scientists? We’ll never know now.

There are some other interesting possibilities. In discussing matters of flatulence and eruction, Roach points out that there are certain situations in which a large python, digesting certain large animals (such as gazelles), can let out a gaseous blast from the mouth that has enough hydrogen to catch fire (this is also generally why a flatus will burn; hydrogen is more common than methane as a constituent in addition to being more easily flammable). So if a hunter who had captured such a python (which would not be at all active, and this easy to take) set it down with its mouth close enough to a campfire . . . perhaps that’s where the legend of a fire-breathing dragon originated. (I should note that a panelist at an SF convention once suggested that the physical description of a dragon resembles Crocodilus nilus, though the latter certainly doesn’t breathe fire.)

Another odd tale concerns the reason why Elvis Presley had a very lavishly furnished bathroom – and died on the toilet there. It seems he had a (probably congenital) colon problem that caused his colon to become overstuffed with fecal matter. His mother supposedly used to help push it out. The result is that he had to spend a great deal of time on the porcelain throne, and it could be quite a strain taking care of business. His case wasn’t even especially bad; one sorry specimen had a colon so enlarged it was kept in a medical museum. (At its biggest, it was 28 inches around, compared with 4 for a normal colon.(

There are many such topics that have been investigated over the years. How much good does thorough chewing do? She reports on the research, and its merits seem to be dubious. Why do people choose to eat some foods and not others that are perfectly acceptable in other cultures? Apparently there are many quite tasty dishes that the average person would never consider eating. (A crostic puzzle I did recently in fact discussed one such: jellyfish.) How much of our appreciation of food is taste, and how much is actually smell? (This is very relevant for me because I effectively have no sense of smell.) And this doesn’t even consider such matters as where some criminals really have been known to hide their stash – of money or drugs, and perhaps occasionally other things as well.

All of these, and more, are grist for Mary Roach’s mill. So, if you have a strong enough stomach to handle the discussion of such alimentary topics, you may find this well worth reading. (Of course, I got it by a very odd means – the Quality Paperback Book Club sent it to me by error. If they send me the appropriate label and especially postage – I see no reason why I should pay to mail it back – I’ll return it. But nothing wrong with reading it now, given that I will probably eventually want my own copy anyway.) • (3147 views)

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