The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons — The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery by Sam Kean, 2014, 407 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-316-18234-8 
CAN $30.00

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons book cover

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons is Sam Kean's third book and again, he does not disappoint. Kean has an engaging, engrossing, entertaining and subtly witty writing style that make his books very easy to read and understand, even if the content is not simple. Although writing on a scientific topic, Kean writes for a general audience, provides ample explanation and sprinkles humour generously throughout.

As a point of clarification, Chem 13 News magazine is primarily for chemistry teachers and The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons is not an obvious fit. If that concerns you, read Kean's The Disappearing Spoon2 first. Once you become enamoured with his writing style, you will not mind that the Duelling Neurosurgeons is not primarily a chemistry book.

Moreover, the information you will glean from it will make you marvel at the human brain and its capabilities, the people who suffered with malfunctions and those who studied them. Additionally, the knowledge you gain may even assist your teaching or perhaps help you understand your students.

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons is written in five parts that together include twelve chapters. Also included, and almost as important as the text itself, are the 23 pages of "asterisk" notes. Kean explains with the first one, that an asterisk means an explanatory note or sidebar that embellishes the point being made. These are wonderful to read, either in context with or simply as a review for the chapter. With them he fleshes out the stories he is telling or adds comments of his own based on his extensive research. In addition, Kean offers a challenge to the reader. He presents a rebus1 to start to each chapter. The rebus describes the main point of the chapter and he has asked the reader to let him know if he or she solved them all, or wishes to request his help.

Along with the twelve chapters, there is a detailed introduction — really chapter 13 — where Kean explains both his reason for writing the book and an overview of its organization. While some tend to skip the introduction going straight to chapter one, this one is a must read. In addition to explaining the different parts of the brain with clear diagrams, and how he plans to walk us through the neuroscience, Kean's personal anecdote about his own sleep paralysis is riveting and a precursor to the stories to come. Each following chapter begins with a fascinating tale about someone whose life and trauma has added to our subsequent neurosurgical knowledge. These are incredibly interesting in themselves and are fully explained within both historical and scientific context while highlighting each chapter's particular brain function.

The true stories Kean weaves are the backdrop to each chapter, providing the reader with a clear snapshot of the time period, the tragedy that befell someone and the people charged with putting the life back together. In many cases the accidents that occurred are horrific and the resilience of the human brain is nothing short of amazing. The first story provides the reason for the title and involves Henri II, King of France, who suffered a ghastly brain trauma in a jousting accident. Not simply content to recount the accident, Kean goes into the life of Henri and France in the 1500s, the royal family and their personal ambitions, as well as the two neurosurgeons assigned to administer to the King. Kean uses each introductory story to stage the tragedy, introduce the doctors, give the extent of the brain knowledge at the time and explain brain function as we now know it. The stories themselves are mesmerizing and through them we, as does the medical community of the time, learn about the brain.

By way of examples, there are people who suffered with synesthesia3 and phantom limbs.4 There are examples of brain plasticity where the visually blind can be made to "see" again through electrodes implanted in the tongue or back. Kean points out that the whole concept of how we see involves different brain tracks explaining why some of the visually blind can still see emotions on faces. The study of epileptics, those with alien hand5, and those with delusions are intriguing. So too, are the captivating stories of amnesiacs. Kean describes different forms that amnesia can take depending on damage to different areas of brain. We are also party to an amazing example of the life and problems of the flip side, a person who had absolute total recall. Finally, his chapter on the left and right hemispheres6 can clarify for the uninitiated how these two sides of the brain both absorb information and communicate with each other and what happens when they fail to communicate. These tales are presented with clarity, in a vernacular anyone can understand, and with a thoroughness that evokes both empathy for the individual and curiosity about the condition.

Throughout the reading, the chemistry teacher can experience two overriding experiences. The first is just how fortunate one is when the brain functions "normally". Reading the stories of how even the slightest malfunction can manifestly affect someone's life, allows you to appreciate good brain health. The second is the incredible brilliance and tenacity of the early pioneers in neuroscience and their ability to learn about the brain through autopsies, behavioural observations and by attempting, not always with success, surgical intervention. These pioneers are akin to brilliant scientists, Rutherford, Bohr, Planck and Schrödinger to name but a few, who fleshed out the theory of the atom. In both cases they were dealing with the unseen, doing groundbreaking experiments, making detailed observations and proposing brilliant theories.

In The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, Kean takes the reader on a magnificent journey from the very earliest pioneers of neuroscience to our present understanding of our brain. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful read.


  1. A rebus is a puzzle that involves piecing together pictures and letters to form a hidden word or phrase.
  2. See Chem 13 News, September 2011, page 16 for a review.
  3. Synesthesia is caused by a malfunction in the white matter in the brain, which causes multiple senses to be triggered by a single stimulus.
  4. Phantom limbs are often suffered by amputees. The story of George Dedlow is just as fantastic as it is unpredictable.
  5. Alien hand is a classic example of one hand not knowing what the other is doing and it often acts as if it has a mind of its own.
  6. Almost saving the best for the last, the tragedy that befell Phineas Gage will sear itself into your memory