This erudite collection of twelve essays by a physician-scientist weaves allegory, myth, clinical experience, science, and western history and religion (particularly Catholicism) with ruminations on the meaning of medicine and health. The author is the chair of the Department of Medicine at Jagiellonian University School of Medicine in Cracow, Poland – a university founded in 1364 and which counts Copernicus and Pope John Paul II as alumni. Hence it is with this sense of history that the author addresses such topics as cardiology, pain and its relief, genomics, critical care, infectious disease, health care financing. For instance, in Chapter VII “A Purifying Power” Szczeklik traces the word “katharsis” (the title of the book in the original Polish) to the Greek chorus, Pythagoras and Aristotle, then explores the interplay between music and medicine.

Some of the memorable clinical tales are of the reanimation of a frozen man and the resuscitation of a man who drags himself to the newly opened critical care unit and then very cooperatively codes. The narratives about research, such as the self-experimentation with prostacyclin just after its discovery in the 1970s, are also riveting.

The scope includes the realms of science and religion. For instance, Szczeklik mentions both the Papal Academy of Sciences session on evolution (Pope John Paul II: “The scientific theory of evolution is not at odds with any truth of the Christian faith.” p. 128) as well as religious overtones to metaphoric declarations about the power of the genome (“the language of God” p. 125).


These essays complement the writings of the American physician-scientist Lewis Thomas (e.g., Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony). The writing is learned, but not strained. The lucid translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and the foreword by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz add to the appeal of the book. Note however that role models for women physicians or scientists are lacking from the narrative.


Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; foreword by Czeslaw Milosz


Univ. of Chicago Press

Place Published

Chicago , IL



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