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The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 @ 07:02 PM  posted by Mark

The only difference between diseases like cholera, malaria and the Bubonic plague and lesser-known ailments like Bone Leprosy and Inverted Drowning Syndrome is that the former actually exist. Western medicine, though, has rarely let a formality like actual existence get in the way of a good diagnosis.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases collects some of the most fearsome syndromes, diseases and disorders ever cataloged by human beings, and the fact that these diseases are fictional should not stop you from using the guide to diagnosis your family and friends. Edited by Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts, the book is a tribute to the fictional Thackery Lambshead—early twentieth century explorer, scientist, medicine show barker and adventurer—and contains detailed explanations of bizarre ailments observed in all four corners of the world, dating from ancient times to the present. Contributors to the collection include Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Alan Moore, each of whom offers the history of moderately plausible, bizarre diseases in prose that mimics nineteenth century medical books.

The entries are hit and miss, ranging from the brilliant to the juvenile, but when individual contributions work, they critique the very idea of western taxonomies, comment on the gulf between knowledge and belief (which can still be wide when it comes to ailments of the human body) and tap into our fears about the truly weird and alien things that can actually happen to us.

My favorite entry is Stepan Chapman’s Bone Leprosy, a medieval disease first diagnosed in Turkey in 1510, in which the victim’s bones gradually disintegrate, leaving the unfortunate person completely well except for the absence of a skeleton. Due to ignorant prejudice against them, these puddles of human flesh are cast out of society in medieval Turkey and form their own community, which is persecuted until an obscure saint named Calamaro ministers to them and brings peace to their colony. The text and accompanying illustrations are funny, but the entry also makes a serious (albeit sideways) point about medical prejudice, such as the modern prejudice against AIDS victims, that raises it above mere cleverness or self-indulgence. Fun especially for medical students and fans of real-life medical dramas, the Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases makes actual medical books seem exactly as weird as they really are.

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One Response to “The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases”

  1. Raquelle says:

    This book should come with a warning so that hypochondriacs don’t read it and start self-diagnosing these fake diseases.

    Great review!