Carrying the Heart: Exploring the Worlds within Us

Gonzalez-Crussi, Frank

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

  • Date of entry: Feb-07-2013
  • Last revised: Feb-05-2013


F. González-Crussi, professor emeritus of Pathology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, has written several books on medicine and the human body. Carrying the Heart deals with five basic organ systems; he styles them as Digestive, Scatology, Respiratory, Reproductive, and Cardiovascular.

In his Foreword, he rejects a mechanical view of the body and medicine that treats patients as passive protoplasm. He seeks to engage the imagination of his readers so that they can become active participants in health care.

For each system, González-Crussi assembles an eclectic wealth of materials: views of authors from classical times onwards, scientists who changed perceptions of the body, his own hands-on view as a pathologist, parallel organs in other mammals, and, usually, an extended narrative of a person with an unusual anatomical history. These are highly personal essays, “rhapsodies,” we might say, which stitch together unusual and interesting facts, observations, and interpretations. It’s impossible to guess what will be on the next page, and the discoveries are many. A gifted stylist, González-Crussi writes with both erudition and wit. 

For “Digestive,” he cites Livy, Paracelsus, Joan Baptista van Helmont, and others before turning to Thomas Bartholin, who questioned the notion that the stomach was somehow the “king” of the body and the seat of the soul. González-Crussi writes, “the gastric cardia admits and stores impure food, without this having any discernible effect on the soul. Nor is the soul damaged by performers at circuses and country fairs who lower swords and knives into the stomach” (p.7). The text marches on through Réamur, Spallanzani and others, before turning to the well-known story of Dr. William Beaumont and his patient Alexis St. Martin, who had a hole in his side (from a gunshot). Beaumont experimented with materials placed directly into the stomach.

Next in the digestive process are the bowels, discussed on “Scatology,” literally the study of scat or excrement. González-Crussi is fascinated by cultural values of “death, putrescence, and dissolution” that attach to our scat. He draws on Rabelais, Luther, the Gnostics, Chuang-tzu, and the Aztecs for the views on the contents and process of the bowels—more than the nature of the actual bowels themselves. The next 30 pages deal with enemas, including the modern (and discredited) notion of “auto-intoxication” a justification bruited about even today for colonics.

Oddly enough, the enema theme continues in the “Respiratory” essay, because there were “smoke enemas” for some 200 years. Page 104 shows a French illustration of interlocked tubes for this purpose; indeed the same illustration graces the slipcover for the book. González-Crussi draws on Anaximenes, Pirandello, Plutarch, Hawthorne, and others. Some 15 pages describe a famous tuberculosis patient, Frederic Chopin, although perhaps he was actually a cardiac patient.

Part I of “Reproductive” is “Female.” We quickly learn that “The uterus is placed between the bladder and the rectum. As a piece of real estate, the uterus would be much devalued by the condition of the neighborhood” (p. 152). Nonetheless, the uterus is “immunologically privileged,” fending off germs that might infect a fetus (which in itself is “half foreign” because of the father’s genes). Drawing on many commentators, González-Crussi discusses menstruation, and pregnancy, although not genital pleasure or orgasm. Some insightful pages explore the normal death of cells within our body.

Part II, “Male” discusses erections, side-curving penises, and the famous penises of Napoleon, Rasputin, and Jesus.

The last essay, “Cardiology” briefly explores two types of knowing (from the heart, from the brain) before a lengthy retelling of the Lay of Ignauer; this strange story ends with women whom he has seduced eating his cooked heart. The last section discusses Harvey’s discovery of the heart as a pump. The final two pages see a new consideration of the heart as a second brain.


My all-too-brief discussion of the contents of this book leaves out much of the wide expanse of the source materials and the rich and elegant style of presentation. González-Crussi is impressive in the extraordinary range of scholarship and stylistic variations in tone from erudite to jocular. The essays move by idiosyncratically from one source to another, providing different perspectives on the same basic subject. Thus we get a rich aura cast around the heart, the lungs, or whatever body structure he is discussing. The mood is varied. There is reverence and awe, but also a cheerful, even challenging sense of the macabre or grotesque. González-Crussi loves oddities and has a knack for finding them in authors past and around the globe as well as from his own personal sensuous experience in his work as a pathologist.



González-Crussi has been extraordinarily productive. Other books by him include On Being Born: And Other Difficulties; On Seeing: Things Seen, Unseen, and Obscene; A Short History of Medicine; The Day of the Dead: And other Mortal Reflections; The Five Senses; Notes of an Anatomist; On the Nature of Things Erotic, and Suspended Animation: Six Essays on the Preservation of Bodily Parts.


Kaplan Publishing

Place Published

New York



Page Count