Keith Oatley

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A Natural History: A Novel

Oatley, Keith

Last Updated: Sep-01-2006
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


After working with the Parisian physiologist, François Magendie, Dr. John Leggate returns to England to practice in the town of Middlethorpe in the late 1840s. He is obsessed with making a research discovery that will help humanity and establish his name. He falls in love with the intelligent and gifted Marian Brooks who aspires to a career as a concert pianist after study in Leipzig with Felix Mendelsohn. They marry and find happiness at first, but she is troubled by discovery of his past affair in France, and he is troubled by her abandoning music simply to be the type of wife he never wanted.

Leggate has a theory about the origins of cholera, but his painstaking work shows him two things: 1. his original idea is mistaken, and 2. the disease is spread by water. He does not publish, though he announces his intentions to do so. Intimidated by skeptical colleagues, he is unable to write, and the problem is exacerbated by a newspapermen who makes unwarranted accusations because he holds a grudge against Leggate’s wife.

Marian wants to help him, but he rejects her offers and retreats into himself. Their marriage is threatened. Just as cholera returns and the town learns from Leggate’s insights, John Snow publishes his famous observations on cholera. Leggate is scooped. He and Marian migrate to Canada where he is accepted for his skills and desire to be of service and she establishes a conservatory of music. Their marriage is restored.

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