A Man of Misconceptions -- The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change by John Glassie, Riverhead Books, $26.95, 333 pages, ASIN #1594488711. Index, selected sources, notes, b&w images sprinkled through text.
Writing about his subject, Athanasius Kircher, author John Glassie says, "Kircher's interest knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made him famous across Europe. His celebrated museum in Rome featured magic lanterns, speaking statues, the tail of a mermaid, and a brick from the Tower of Babel. Holy Roman Emperors were his patrons, popes were his friends, and in his spare time he collaborated with the Baroque master Bernini."
"Kircher was so prolific and so ingenious that he might have been remembered as a king of 17th-century Leonardo. The problem was that he got so many things wrong... And "For all that he actually knew, the author writes, "Kircher never ruined a good story with facts.... (and) was also known for a tendency to embellish on his own behalf." This downside of his scholarly reputation, meant that after his death, "until a recent revival of interest in this baroque polymath, the custom was to either scoff or avoid discussing him altogether."
Author John Glassie is a former contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine and has written for numerous magazines and newspapers. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The Fertility Doctor -- John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution by Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, Johns Hopkins UP '08, $29.95, 374 pages, ASIN #0801890012. Index, notes, no bibliography, two groupings of b&w images.
Infertile couples conceiving a child through in vitro fertilization has become commonplace, but when Louise Brown was conceived in vitro some 35 years ago, it was front page news. "John Rock spent his career studying human reproduction," write authors Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, who are the first scholars to have access to this noted researcher's personal papers.
Not only did John Rock help develop oral contraceptives in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he "enjoyed international celebrity for his promotion of the pill and his campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to accept." By the 1970s, Rock became even more controversial, "as conservative Christians argued that his embryo studies were immoral and feminist activists contended that he had taken advantage of the clinic patients who had participated in these studies as research subjects."
When one weighs John Rock's scientific accomplishments, it's a surprise to learn from the authors that he was "a directionless young man, a saloon keeper's son, who began his working life as a timekeeper on a Guatemalan banana plantation." Marsh and Ronner portray Rock's medical practice from the perspective of his patients, 'who ranged from the wives of laborers to Hollywood film stars."
Margaret Marsh teaches history at Rutgers University--Camden. Wanda Ronner teaches obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.