Mary Cappello's "Swallow"
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:48 PM
Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them
By Mary Cappello
New Press. 292 pp. $27.95
A 7-year-old girl has been unable to drink liquids for a week after she burned her throat by swallowing lye. Gently working his forceps, Dr. Chevalier Jackson, a pioneer in the field of laryngology, removes a chunk of scar tissue blocking the girl's esophagus. When a nurse hands the girl a glass of water, she takes a drink. "It went slowly down; she took another sip, and it went down," Jackson wrote about the case. "Then she gently moved aside the glass of water in the nurse's hand, took hold of my hand, and kissed it."
In "Swallow," Mary Cappello retells the forgotten story of Jackson, who was once one of the country's most popular and respected physicians. Today, many of the items he removed from people's insides are filed away in a metal cabinet at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia: safety pins, needles, nails, a crucifix with several rosary beads still attached, chicken bones, a half-dollar dated 1892, a bullet and a pin that ironically reads "B-A-2-Way Looker Says Care Fu Lee."
Perfectly ambidextrous, Jackson removed most of the items nonsurgically, using bronchoscopes and esophagoscopes he helped design. He rarely used anaesthesia and almost never took a fee for his services. For many of his patients, he was the last resort. One man traveled 9,000 miles to have Jackson remove a nail from his lung. Some objects had been lodged in patients' throats for minutes, while others had been stuck for more than 40 years. The problem, as the doctor saw it, was a complete disregard for caution. He once wrote that Americans should "chew" their milk and suggested that "one should drive a motor car on the principle that every other driver on the highway is deaf, dumb, drunk or demented."
Cappello's book is a warm and thoroughly researched portrait of Jackson, who died in 1958 at age 93. As a physician, he was obsessed with precision. Unfortunately, a reader may sense that Cappello lacks that same quality as a writer. Attempting to digest the material in her book, one could choke on some of the words and usages she has stuffed into the pages. (One sentence begins, "His purchase on the impossible borderlands of foreign-body lodgment is always a hermeneutic one. . . .") Nuggets such as the story of the girl who kissed the doctor's hand in gratitude must be extracted from the author's prose as if with forceps.
-T. Rees Shapiro