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TV: Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery

Nicola Mostyn wonders whether all doctors are just frustrated light entertainers

Published on August 26th 2008.

TV: Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery

“This series reveals surgery’s evolution from butchery to brilliance,” proclaims presenter Dr Michael Mosely in the programme’s intro. I wonder what kind of viewer this series will attract: those with a genuine interest in the history of medical progress or those who like nothing better than to gaze at people’s gelatinous insides whilst they’re still conscious and blinking at you?

The latter group would have been well pleased with Katherine, who’s been having epileptic fits due to an abnormal cluster of blood vessels. She’s having brain surgery. Look, there she is, chatting merrily away with her head peeled open like a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. Actually, it was more like a strawberry tart or a giant toffee apple or something from Dante’s seventh circle of hell dipped in tomato sauce. But, hey, Katherine’s still shooting the breeze, blissfully unaware of what monstrosity her skull contains.

Once we’ve had a good look, it’s time to find out how such surgery was made possible. Here we follow a whiskered man into a room filled with jar upon jar of brains.

Mosely is amazed. “Well, it is a remarkable collection” agrees whiskers, as though someone had just brought them along to The Antiques Roadshow. These are the ex-patients (or parts thereof) of Doctor Harvey Cushing, a 19th century American surgeon. By all accounts, Cushing was a spooky character, utterly obsessed with finding a way to operate on the brain. To prove it, we see some archive footage in which he appears to be inserting a set of wrenches into a Ferrero Rocher.

Amazingly, this technique wasn’t as accurate as one might hope. The problem, says Dr Mosely, is that they might inadvertently remove a vital part of the brain. One wrong move might leave the patient incapacitated, or dead, or a fan of Celine Dion.

Which is why mapping the brain became the next important step. Different parts of the brain take care of different functions and to prove our brains aren’t just a “homogenous pudding”, Dr M offers up his own bonce for experimentation. This involves him merrily slipping on a beanie hat and a couple of clamps on while some scientist stands behind him with a gigantic key, of the sort used for winding up toys. It looked very much like an Edinburgh fringe show but I’m sure it was all scientifically valid.

The key-man targeted the section of Doctor Mosely’s brain which sends messages to the hands, disrupting it with a magnetic field whilst asking him to write a sentence. His letters were all over the show but, since he’s a doctor, to my mind this proved absolutely nothing. More conclusive was the next task, where Doctor Mosely repeatedly poked himself in the nose, laughing hysterically. Dr M is rather giddy. Is he a real doctor? Frankly, I wouldn’t let him near me with a wet flannel.

Anyway, livening up things for the blood’n’gore fans, Dr M then goes on the trail of “The Lobotomist” who may or may not be one of the new Gladiators.

Oh no, he’s not. He was a man called Walter Freeman who became infatuated with cleaving people’s brains in two to cure their insanity. “He started out with good intentions,” says his son, a phrase which usually indicates an unhappy ending. And so it was, since the whole lobotomy shebang was woefully unscientific. Freeman wasn’t even a surgeon, though this didn’t stop him banging huge nails into people’s head and then having at them with a bloody great drill.

Eventually he perfected his craft so could do the whole thing with an ice pick, which must have made him a riot at cocktail parties: “He would go in through the eye socket,” Mosely tells us gleefully. “He would get the ice pick and a hammer, push the eyeball out of the way, bump it through the skull and then just squiggle it around.” I’m dearly hoping these aren’t technical terms.

The Lobotomist’s motivations, at this point, start to appear slightly suspect. Especially when he hared off across America in a camper van on some sort of Lobotomy Unplugged tour. He also started to get a bit freestyle: “He would perform lobotomies left-handed, even though he was right-handed.” “One time he lined up two women and tickled them in the ribs...” When they say he performed lobotomies, they really meant it. I like to imagine some tinkly organ music and a twirling bow tie and a couple of dancing girls.

Only, of course, it’s not really a laughing matter, since he was attacking people’s brains on the flimsiest of pretexts, as we saw when Dr M met a 59 year old American truck driver who was subject to Freeman’s travelling show when he was just 11, brought along by the stepmother he didn’t get along with. Having lost his childhood to mental institutions, he now looked like a sad old walrus. An MRI scan showed he has two black holes in his brain. Heartbreaking stuff.

Grim though some of this information was, I’m sure it disappointed the gore lovers that Blood and Guts wasn’t half as icky as you might imagine – though possibly that’s only because I have a grotesque imagination. Next week, it’s the turn of the heart: “I’m going to recreate some classic experiments. On myself,” says Dr Mosely, himself a sure bet for a frustrated variety performer. BBC 4 - Do not give this man an ice pick.

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery, 9pm, BBC 4.

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