New York is the setting for thirteen linked stories that profile a long line of curious and sometimes loony doctors who are passionate about medical science but often lack common sense and good judgment. Beginning with Dr. Olaf van Schuler in the seventeenth century and continuing over more than 300 years with generations of his descendants (the Steenwycks), missteps and madness loom large in this inquisitive and peculiar medical family.

Most of these doctors share common goals: They strive to eliminate pain. They attempt to expand the scope of medical knowledge. They seek the soul. In their quest for cures and enlightenment, many of these physician-scientists, their relatives, and patients embrace off-beat diagnostic techniques or unproven remedies: phrenology, magnetism, bloodletting, hypnosis, radium-emitting apparatus, electrical shocks, and lobotomy.

In "The Siblings," a doctor performs a lobotomy on his sister. She dies a few months after the operation. In "The Story of Her Breasts," a woman develops rheumatoid arthritis that may or may not be caused by her silicone breast implants. She also experiences guilt and worry after encouraging her 18-year-old daughter to undergo breast augmentation. In "The Baquet," hope is undeniable and a miracle cure is mesmerizing. In the book's final story, "The Doctors," two physicians - a father and his daughter - grapple with their strained relationship and the man's progressive deterioration that might be due to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.


These masterful stories offer a snapshot of medical history - quirks, quackery, and fads. Doctors and patients are equally intriguing and alarming. Plenty of ethical and moral dilemmas are posed. Questions pertaining to science, discovery, and healing abound: When does passion become obsession? How does one distinguish genius from lunacy? What boundaries must physician-scientists never cross?

Family takes a huge hit in these tales. Deliberate hurt and unintentional pain are frequently thrust upon parents, children, and siblings. Wounds of all kinds afflict this strange family. Two things are certain in this collection of stories: 1) Science (even bad science) has power. Be careful how you use it and how it uses you. 2) Doctors should avoid treating family members. Good intentions are not enough. Just ask any member of the van Schuler/Steenwycks clan.

Primary Source

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Place Published

Chapel Hill, North Carolina



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