Selzer begins by describing an anonymous painting of Vesalius at the dissecting table, about to cut into the cadaver in front of him, yet glancing over his shoulder at a crucifix on the wall behind him. He then tells two medical stories in which spirituality has played a crucial role.

In the first, a man who has repeatedly refused to have a brain cancer operated on turns up one day healed, attributing it to the holy water a family member brought back from Lourdes. In the second, the Dalai Lama's personal physician does rounds in an American hospital and, using ancient techniques, diagnoses correctly, and in some detail, a case of congenital heart disease.


This is Selzer's strongest treatment, verging on melodramatic, of the theme of surgery as sacrilege, needing to be redeemed by love ("One enters the body in surgery, as in love, as though one were an exile returning at last to his hearth . . . ") or by being reframed as religious ritual (in which surgery is "a Mass served with Body and Blood, wherein disease is assailed as though it were sin"). It is a huge topic, and Selzer takes some risks in trying to convey how it (presumably) feels to him at least at times in surgery, occasionally pushing the boundaries of essay form and also of what some readers will want to visualize.

Primary Source

Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York



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