Book Review

Book Review: "The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart" By Dr. Thomas Amidon and Stephen Amidon

Review by James McRae, RCIS

Review by James McRae, RCIS

The juxtaposition between medicine and literature has provoked a unique book called “The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart.” Co-writer Stephen Amidon is a novelist and literary critic.  His previous frame of reference for  understanding of the human heart was that of a symbol inspiring human emotion and inspiration. Following the death of his father, Stephen Amidon began to ask hard questions about the heart in regards to its mechanics and his own health.  For those answers he sought the guidance of his brother, co-author Dr. Thomas Amidon.

Dr. Amidon, of Kalispell, Montana, is an interventional cardiologist, public speaker and former instructor.   Dr. Thomas Amidon is an “everyman” kind of physician, skilled when it comes to communicating complexities of heart disease to patients in terms they can understand. From these discussions came the genesis of their new book.

Possibly more than any other organ in history, the heart stimulates probing questions not only in science, but in fields such as religion and philosophy.  The heart has inspired poems, controversy, and even laws, yet even in today’s information age, its symbolism has a strong presence in the human psyche. For instance, what exactly does it mean to be heartless, to hear a heartfelt speech or to be heartbroken?  People understand what these terms mean, but it is often difficult to define terms that have meaning beyond what is found in the dictionary. Why do we say such things?

About one third of the way into “The Sublime Engine,” it is evident this is not a medical book, but is just as the title suggests: a biography of the human heart. The book is a mix of history, sociology, superstition, and short stories regarding the perception of the heart’s importance. There are no illustrations or pictures of anatomy. There are no charts or graphs or synopsis of medical studies that would alienate the average reader.

That is not to say the book is devoid of any modern medical information. Books written for the general public about heart disease continue to fill store shelves, but few, if any, present the heart in such a unique and interesting manner. Medical information is typically presented in a straightforward way, but the material in this book is scattered among the delightful true stories, intriguing historical personalities, and countless pieces of medical trivia, all while attempting to provide the reader with a deeper understanding of what the heart means to us.

The authors chose to divide the book into specific categories such as “Ancient Hearts,” “Romantic Hearts,” “Modern Hearts,” and so on. Every chapter begins with a narrative true story that introduces the reader to the specific chapter’s topic. The authors explain how ancient Egyptians didn’t understand the heart’s purpose, but recognized its value by making it the only organ left inside the body during mummification. They give examples of how the early Christian church developed the concept of the “Sacred Heart,” and explain why morticians removed the heart of poets before burial. In this particular case, tradition dictated that a poet was buried and the heart given to his widow. Such was the case of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, who received her husband Percy Shelley’s heart upon his death.  Stephen and Dr. Thomas Amidon also include the bizarre tale that puts an end to this tradition.

Perhaps of most interest to those working in cardiac medicine is the very funny tale introducing the chapter titled “The Modern Heart.” Most medical professionals know the story of Dr. Werner Forssmann’s experiment, and how Dr. Forssmann placed a catheter through his arm into his own heart. “The Sublime Engine” includes the lesser-known details of how Dr. Forssmann had to trick a nurse into giving him access to the medical supplies, and then tied her to a stretcher so that she would not stop his legendary experiment.

It is important to have books of this caliber written today. Few people realize that the human body has a fascinating story. Important medical advances are reported in the media, but often fail to connect with people who care more about reality television than their own bodies. Dr. Thomas and Stephen Amidon deserve credit for showing human beings are more than tissue, bone and blood. They prove that science is indeed fascinating, especially once the storyteller meets the doctor on equal ground.

James McRae is an RCIS at Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. He is a freelance writer and author of the blog “I Claudio.” He can be reached at