In the nave of Salisbury Cathedral is a 13th-century stone effigy, worn and faded. This is the tomb of William Longespée, an illegitimate son of King Henry II. Despite being one of the most powerful nobles of his day, Longespée met an unexpected, sudden end in 1226. Some suspected he was poisoned.
For centuries, the cause of death remained a mystery. Yet when the tomb was reopened in 1791, inside Longespée’s skull there was discovered a mummified rat. It emerged the rat (after feasting on Longespée’s brain) had died from arsenic poisoning – the same fate, it seemed, which had befallen his lunch, all those centuries before.
It is just one of many thrilling tales dissected by Suzie Edge in Vital Organs, in which we are invited to join her at the operating table and forensically examine the body, tendon by grisly tendon. With empirical logic, we work top to bottom, each chapter dedicated to a famous limb, organ or appendage of the past. First come “Louis Braille’s eyes” and “Frida Kahlo’s eyebrow(s)”, Then “Reinhold Messner’s lungs”, “Samuel Pepys’s bladder”, “Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells” and finally “Remains to be seen”. This is history as intimate as it gets.
Edge is not your usual historian. Her doctorate stems from a career in medicine, with expertise in infectious diseases, trauma and orthopaedic surgery. Edge is an expert in communicating medical history to the masses, sharing educational videos on Tiktok, where she has almost 400,000 followers. Her first book, Mortal Monarchs, was a lively account of 1,000 years of kings and queens, through the lens of their final moments. Vital Organs follows hot on its heels, just 12 months later.
It is another whirlwind anatomical adventure. We learn of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s calcified heart, which, when his corpse was placed on the funeral pyre, refused to burn. The poet, it emerged, had a heart of stone (it was laced with calcium deposits).
Jeremy Bentham left instructions to preserve and display his dead body to “diminish the horrors of death”. Any dignity in death was short-lived. The philosopher’s head – too gory to display – was kept in a separate box, and in 1975, stolen by students and held to ransom.
There are tales of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the practice of binding books in human skin), and accounts of hospitalism, where patients were killed by the horrors of hospital conditions. Edge explains how preserved heads of Māori were baked, dried in the sun, coated in shark oil and packed with clay – a process which preserved the individual’s likeness and facial tattoos. We learn of second-century theories of breast cancer, which blamed a “coagulum of black bile”.
All these macabre stories are enlivened by Edge’s personal anecdotes and friendly tone. “He gave us theories in quantum physics that we all pretend to understand,” she jokes of Einstein’s discoveries. When Queen Victoria suffered from an armpit abscess the size of an orange, Edge tells us “the bacteria were having a party”. We travel to the French village of Mont-Saint-Jean, “a bone’s throw from the battlefield”.
There is a good dose of scientific technicality here, too. Thankfully for the general reader, such particulars are translated into layman’s terms. Princess Victoria’s labour – which saw complications in “the brachial plexus where the C5 and C6 nerve roots come together” – is given a straight-forward explanation: “The baby’s bum came first and the doctor pulled out his legs”. It makes for a quirky read, and – although not always in the most elegant prose – gets the lesson across for experts and amateurs alike, without pretension or condescension.
Like Edge’s TikTok hits, Vital Organs is packed with memorable facts, perfectly packaged as conversational anecdotes. Indeed, this is akin to enjoying a long walk with the author, with all the natural deviations and delights of enjoyable chit-chat. It zooms through time and across location, leaving not a moment to doze off. Some readers may find such breadth over depth too light, with the prose – which is void of references – overly simplistic and rough around the edges. Yet such infelicities are outweighed by Edge’s signature cheery style.
Vital Organs is a bracing adventure, and one where our ancestors are not reduced to characters of myth or legend, but real people of flesh and blood. It is through this most intimate dissection that the past is brought so vividly to life.
Alice Loxton is the author of Uproar! Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London. Vital Organs: A History of the World’s Most Famous Body Parts is published by Wildfire at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books