Book Review: The Medicine Cabinet of Curiosities by Nicholas Bakalar

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

This is a book for people who want to impress others at cocktail parties. Brimming with odd tidbits of knowledge about the human body and health, it provides a wealth of “did you know?” conversation starters.

In the book’s introduction, New York Times columnist Bakalar describes Medicine Cabinet as a “random collection, put together with no more direction than that offered by the author’s impulses.” Readers looking for a comprehensive review of medical conditions will be sorely disappointed. But those who take the lighthearted book at face value will learn a lot. For example, if you’re hit with the sniffles on the streets of New York City, the nearest tissues may be in a passing ambulance. Every ambulance must carry exactly one box, according to rules set by the New York State Emergency Medical Services.

The entries are organized into chapters that are loosely grouped by themes including health statistics, infectious diseases and common causes of death. Within chapters, though, topics transition on the turn of a phrase: A discussion of breast and testicular implants in a chapter on discoveries moves quickly into a list of diseases named for the doctors who first described them.

Despite his hops, skips and whimsical tone,Bakalaravoids inanities. Complex topics, such as the debate over the health benefits of cranberry juice, are reviewed with humor and intelligence. As such, the book may give you a leg up at your next social engagement. But save the section on hemorrhagic fevers for after dinner.

Times Books, 2009, 225 p., $15

The Medicine Cabinet of Curiosities by Nicholas Bakalar