Reading 'Heart: A History' Through an Innovation Lens

How the world advances.

March 17, 2019

Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

Published in September of 2018.

Do you know what the leading cause of death is in the US?

The answer is heart disease.  In 2016, 635,260 died of heart disease.  Cancer came second, killing 598,038.  Nothing else is even close.

Understanding why we are likely to die from heart disease above all other causes is just one of the benefits of reading Heart: A History.  Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, writes in a way that makes the physiology of the heart - and all the ways that things can go wrong with the heart - accessible, comprehensible, and fascinating for a non-specialist audience.

I read Heart: A History while I was immersed in thinking about learning innovation for my own writing projects.  Along with a developing set of colleagues and collaborators, I’ve become obsessed with how colleges and universities may make big leaps in advancing student learning.

Reading Heart: A History made me think that I’m an amateur when it comes to obsession. If you are interested in innovation, in how big leaps occur, then the story of cardiology is a good story to know.  As Jauhar tells it, all the big leaps in treating heart disease were made by physicians with extraordinarily high tolerances for risk.

The history of cardiology seems to be one of doctors experimenting on themselves, performing surgeries that were openly scorned and mocked the learned colleagues, and living with high probabilities of patient death.

Every advance in cardiology, from cardiac catheterization to internal pacemakers, to artificial hearts required that deeply ingrained beliefs and practices be overcome.  The doctors that made all of these cardiac advances that we rely on today (about 200,000 pacemakers are implanted each year in the US) were all - in Jauhar’s telling - basically crazy.  Or at least so stubbornly committed to their ideas that they were willing to live with professional rebuke to push their ideas forward.

Are those of us in the learning innovation business equally as willing to endure repeated failures and public embarrassments as our cardiologist cousins?

My other reaction while reading Heart: A History was “wow, this guy can write.” It’s true.  Jauhar is way too good a writer than any full-time doctor has a right to be.

Jauhar’s writing is so good not only because he has done his homework on the history of cardiology.  Or that he is so lucid in explaining complicated anatomical and medical information.  What makes Heart: A History such an excellent book is how Jauhar as a person, not only a physician, comes through.

This is a story of how Jauhar’s family has been impacted by death from heart disease (both his grandfathers), and his scares with the risk factors associated with dying from a heart attack.

Heart: A History is also about how a cardiologist is trained, how a cardiologist thinks, and the limits of a purely scientific view of the heart and its diseases.

If you loved books like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer then Heart: A History should make your must-read list.

What are your favorite books about the history of specific diseases and organs?

What do you think of the idea of trying to understand how higher ed might change by looking at how advances have been made in other areas and domains?

Are there enough norm breakers in higher ed?

What are you reading?

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Joshua Kim

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