Markel plummets readers into a world where psychoanalytic models for mental disease — and sanitary practices for hospitals — don't exist. So when Freud refines talk therapy or Halsted establishes a sterile operating room, you feel the thrill of discovery: You are there at the dawn of modern consciousness.
Markel is, as Wilson says, "a storyteller" — when he grew up in suburban Detroit, he always wanted to be a writer.
"My ambition was to work on 'The Alan Brady Show' [the setting for 'The Dick Van Dyke Show'] — it was a huge disappointment for me when I found out that it was fiction."
At the University of Michigan, Markel devoured "Shakespeare — and Dickens, all the great 19th-century storytellers." But he loved medicine, too, and developed the ambition to become a writer/physician like, say, Richard Selzer. Markel graduated summa cum laude in English, and also earned his medical degree there.
For Markel, as a medical man, going to Hopkins was "like playing for the Yankees." Halsted's legacy is one reason that doctors for over a century have viewed Hopkins as the top club in the big leagues. He created surgical procedures — like the radical mastectomy — and antiseptic practices — like the use of surgical gloves — that saved untold numbers of lives.
After southeastern Michigan, Markel found Baltimore "wonderfully exotic." He lived near the central Enoch Pratt Free Library. He dove into its "lush H.L. Mencken Collection" and emerged with his first book, "The H.L. Mencken Baby Book."
"I love Baltimore," Markel said. "I went through remarkable times in that city."
They included his marriage to Dr. M. Deborah Gordin, a clinical pharmacist at Hopkins' Children's Hospital. She was diagnosed with a rare cancer a month before their wedding; she died thirteen months after the diagnosis.
In the preface to "Quarantine," his riveting chronicle of two epidemics in 1892 New York City, he wrote that he understood "being 'quarantined,' cut off entirely from normal human society simply because I was the husband of a dying woman." (In his new book, he thanks his second wife, Kate Levin Markel, for the way she "scrutinized and improved every page" — and he dedicates it to their two daughters.)
As a young widowed resident at Hopkins in the 1980s, Markel poured himself into a routine that Halsted had helped establish in the 1890s. But in "An Anatomy of Addiction," Markel's admiration for the surgeon never blinds his 20-20 critical vision.
Halsted instituted America's first surgical residency training program, leaving the postoperative care of his patients to his residents. It was a terrific regimen for ambitious sawbones. It was also, Markel notes, "the perfect vehicle for a surgeon with severe addiction problems. Halsted needed the nightly comfort of his narcotics … without having to worry that those he operated on while sober in the morning might suffer from his indisposition that evening."
Still, Markel concludes, "Genius is not found in a bottle, pill, or potion. … The titanic legacies of Sigmund Freud and William Halsted were ground out page by page, stitch by stitch, patient by patient, insight by insight, day after day, year after year."