Elevate Difference

Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain

A thriller that spans five centuries, Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain is entertaining and thought provoking. Thirteen generations of eccentric New York City doctors navigate genius, madness and morality. This book is eerie, smart, unique, and very delicately crafted, telling many stories in every layer of time.

The Van Schulers and Steenwycks are a family of eccentric, genius, medical people, mostly doctors, some more on the fringe than others, some mad. Each has his unique specialty. Their fallibilities play out over obsessions with the brain and the mind. Each generation is engaged in inventing a medical fad of the era. For some, the result is tragic. For most it is less clear whether the result has been heroic or tragic. Always, someone has been fooled.

One physician hides both his mother’s extreme madness and his study of the brain from the Catholic Church. He is convinced he will cure her. He also suffers from lunacy. His obsession with collecting the brains of deceased animals escalates into a gruesome, out of control spiral that condemns them both.  Others are almost as odd, though less secretive and polarized. One testifies in favor of a philandering widow, that his deceased wife died of spontaneous combustion by alcoholism. Another performs an experimental surgery, one of the first lobotomies, on his younger sister, hiding this from his older sisters. One Steenwyck is a medicine showman. Wives swallow gulps of radium to promote fertility and feed it to their husbands, revealing secret wishes.

The Steenwycks continue the tradition of cutting edge medicine into the modern era. The protagonists in the last two or three chapters happen to be women. Neither the oddness nor the deceit seem quite as striking or overt in the last era. But maybe that is because we are living in the same time. This novel is quite a reflection on changes in beliefs and the application of science. The only time the change seemed abrupt was the later shift to the 1980s, though maybe that is because it is closer to now. This is what makes it so thought provoking: the gradual transition from backward ways that were once new, all the way to the controversial new.

The novel was truly a pleasure to read and thoroughly researched. The odd medical techniques are real, and nested in the beliefs and social climate of each era. It would be especially fun for anyone interested in the history of medicine. It would be interesting to use to generate discussion in a seminar related to ethics, the history of medicine, or the history of New York City.

Written by: Heather Irvine, April 17th 2009

On a somewhat related note, I find it disturbing to think that lobotomies were sometimes used to "correct" women who were deemed difficult and who didn't fit the prototype for how a woman should be and act--with the consent of family members.