History Nonfiction

How to Remove a Brain: and Other Bizarre Medical Practices and Procedures – David Haviland

15 January 2019
How to Remove a Brain Book Cover How to Remove a Brain
David Haviland
Thistle Publishing
July 12, 2017

A collection of bizarre and amusing stories covering the entire history of medicine.


How to Remove a Brain is the new book from the very talented David Haviland and he has a growing reputation of producing these fact-filled, trivia, fun reads, on multiple subjects. This medical subject really resonated with me as I often speak about the dubious practices that existed in healthcare and medicines, which led to the establishment of the FDA and other regulatory bodies. I find this whole area totally engrossing and debatable, and the book delivers amazing titbits of medical and physiological information along with its history and practices, to fuel many discussions and revelations. A fascinating book full of medical vignettes that will enlighten, astound, amuse and disgust the reader.

The book starts with the medical wisdom of the ancients and the Egyptians in particular. How do you remove a brain? You could say, saw through the top of the head and lift out, or use a long wire with a hook and feed it through the nasal cavity to scrape it away in chunks – as the ancient Egyptians did in preparation for mummification. The region around Egypt and Greece developed many of the concepts and terminology we still use today. Plastic as in plastic surgery doesn’t come from the use of the material context but rather the Greek word ‘plastikos’ which means to mould. We all know the importance of the Hippocratic Oath but it runs to several principles and is still sworn (or a modified version of it anyway) by most doctors today.

In 1535, Belgian Andreas Vesalius stole the dead body of a hanging criminal and secretly investigated the human skeletal and organ composition, thus disproving many of the beliefs held since Aristotle and Galen. With so many errors from Galen it is now presumed that he could not have dissected a human body to have gained his knowledge, but instead used other animals and assumed a similarity. Vesalius is recognised as the father of modern-day anatomy.

How often in all innovations do we hear how the real inventor, or the seminal piece of work, was conducted by someone other than who is given credit for it? There are some interesting revelations here and often the pursuit of knowledge is accompanied with macabre and clandestine activities. 

All David’s work is very well researched and common misconceptions challenged with a more logical proposition, such as the eradication of the Plague by the Great Fire of London. David makes the reading of this book entertaining and engaging as he often builds the background to the proposed question. For example, was Jack the Ripper a Surgeon? Do we only use 10% of our brain? Can some people go mad at a full moon? Does snake oil work?

Many thanks to David Haviland for providing me with a copy of his book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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