The Oxford Companion to the Body

edited by Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett

Published by Oxford University Press

752 pages, 2002

Buy it online





Corporeal Illumination

Reviewed by Ed Voves


The human body is as familiar as the face in your mirror. It is as perplexing as the medical terminology of a doctor's diagnosis. In the lithe, muscled physique of an Olympic athlete, the human body seems almost a manifestation of godlike perfection, while the grinning skull of "poor Yorick" reminds us that we are all made from mortal clay.

The Oxford Companion to the Body is a prodigious attempt, multidisciplinary in approach, to comprehend the human body -- head to toe, abdomen to zygote, mind as well as matter. Over a decade in the making, the The Oxford Companion to the Body was originally intended as a guide to physiology for a broad, non-specialist audience. Wisely, the scope of the book was widened to include cultural, religious and historical perspectives on the body.

The decision to focus on the body from multiple vantage points was influenced by the Human Genome project. This vast study of human DNA has revolutionized the way that the basic structure of life is understood. In their introduction, editors Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett write that "the new genetics also raises questions about what it is to be a person, how our experiences interact with our bodies and our minds, and what fundamental limits there are to the ability of the human body to adapt, survive, heal and achieve."

The discoveries of medical researchers are adding to the fund of knowledge about the human body at such a rate that the value of a definitive volume like the Oxford Companion needs to be questioned. Books, which aim to provide an all-encompassing synthesis of knowledge on the "cutting-edge" of discovery, are often outpaced by the advances of science. Fortunately, the Oxford Companion was planned with a speculative eye to the future, so that this is less of a problem than might have been the case.

The quality of the writing, as well has the authoritative grasp of subject matter, is another strong point of the The Oxford Companion to the Body . This is a book that deserves to be read for the sake of its insights, rather than merely consulted for information. Admittedly, few readers are going to snuggle under the covers with a coffee table-sized tome but many of the entries in this amazing book are treated with a stylistic flair worthy of popular science writing as its best.

The Oxford Companion is complemented by excellent charts and diagrams and by a number of choice illustrations, including several full-page color photographs. These present striking images of the body from the perspective of modern photojournalism at its best.

But make no mistake. This is not another pictorial presentation of the human form. The book is firmly based on the power of words to evoke and understand the mysteries and complexity of the human body. The entry "Conditioning" is a good example of the Oxford Companion's absorbing style. Rather than launching into a dry summation of stimulus and response, it begins with attention-grabbing examples of human actions which affect or reflect emotional responses. "My heart races and my palms sweat during my first attempt to drive again..." In a similar fashion, the entry for "Epidemic" opens with the French proverb, "Epidemics come with wings and slowly limp away."

There are a number of ways to profit from this wide-ranging book. The most obvious is to consult it for a succinct description of the function of a body part or ailment. The Oxford Companion is the perfect reference book for discovering the role of the pineal gland or to distinguish between "heart attack" and "heart failure."

The unique value of this book, however, is the facility with which it guides and rewards the random researcher, the seeker after serendipity. Open a page, pick a topic and follow its cross-references. The unfolding process of discovery stimulates and illumines the study of the human body from its cultural or religious manifestations, as well as its physiological ones.

The entry for "hygiene" illustrates this process. Beginning with a reference to Greek mythology and Hygeia, the demi-god worshipped for her rules for wise living, it widens its perspective to embrace a host of related themes. Western attitudes to dirt and disease led to racist attacks in the U.S. on African-Americans and various immigrant groups for living in squalor, which then propelled the Eugenics movement and laws to sterilize "undesirables." This baleful trend was seized upon by the leaders of Nazi Germany and other advocates of "racial cleansing." The provocative essay on hygiene concludes with an evaluation of standards of the "personal well-groomed image," the resulting financial stimulus to the beauty industry and its implications for the self-image of teens in the contemporary world. This impressive and authoritative survey of a complex issue, indicative of the tone and presentation of the entire book, is presented in less than a page and a half of eminently readable text.

The Oxford Companion to the Body incorporates the professional experience of 350 writers, predominantly British and American scientists and academics. The uniformly high standard of specialist knowledge and literary ability which they bring to their essays is matched by the overarching sensitivity and common sense of this magnificent volume.

To the credit of its editorial and writing team, the The Oxford Companion to the Body is an essential book of reference, both for understanding the human body and for coming to terms with what it means to be a human being. | June 2002


Ed Voves is a news researcher for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. He frequently reviews books on a wide range of topics, chiefly history and the life sciences, and has interviewed many writers including Maurice Sendak and Umberto Ecco.