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Sacred Lives. An account of the history, cultural associations and social impact of epilepsy

Posted in Book Reviews on 15th Mar 2021

Author: Ian Bone
Published by: Amazon, 2020.
Price: £12.00
Pages: 363
ISBN: 9781838036713
Reviewed by: AJ Larner, WCNN, Liverpool, UK

A recent ABN Newsletter drew my attention to this book by Ian Bone, a long serving (now retired) Consultant Neurologist in Glasgow. Prompted by the experience of caring for a son with epilepsy, this book has been written as an awareness raiser for a general audience, hence it is lightly rather than exhaustively referenced, although there is much here for Neurologists to learn from.

Whereas standard epilepsy texts focus on diagnosis, classification, investigation, and treatment (all briefly touched upon here), this book has more to say about epilepsy in the arts, the media, and society, as well as including a personal account of living with epilepsy. The book thus may be said to complement standard neurology texts, seamlessly bridging the gap between expert text and patient narrative. Only a brief flavour of the rich resulting melange can be given here.

With the benefit of the author’s personal perspective, the sections on stigma and social isolation are particularly informative. Some of the history of this ostracism is also given, for example relating to the eugenics movement and to the “epilepsy colony” movement, both originating in the nineteenth century. The author’s clinical experience is to the fore in discussing legal ramifications of epilepsy. The legal subdivision of automatisms into sane and insane is indicative of the gulf that may exist between medical and legal thinking (p.263).

The many examples of the portrayal of individuals with epilepsy in books bespeaks an immense amount of reading. In addition, examples are also given from film, television, and other of the arts, resulting in a broad frame of cultural reference ranging from Dostoevsky to East Enders! The many inaccuracies in such portrayals are highlighted. Amongst the historical figures alleged to have had epilepsy who are discussed, I would have been intrigued to hear Dr Bone’s thoughts on the claim that St Paul suffered from epilepsy.

Proceeds from the book will go to the William Quarrier Scottish Epilepsy Centre, in light of which I hope it will not seem churlish or mean-spirited to voice some minor criticisms. For example, it is not the case (p.29) that Chalfont St Peter was the first colony for people with epilepsy in the UK (“first patient admitted 1894”), since it was predated by the Maghull Home for Epileptics on the outskirts of Liverpool (first patient admitted 1888). Indeed, Maghull’s founding clinician, William Alexander (p.30), was asked for advice by the directors of the Chalfont colony, both at its foundation and some years later. I’m also in disagreement with Ian Bone in his analysis of Shakespeare’s Othello, where he seems ready to follow convention in diagnosing Othello with epilepsy (p.66-7), but all the eye witness evidence is from Iago, hardly a reliable informant. I’m also sceptical that Dickens’s character Walter Wilding, from the play No Thoroughfare (1867), has epilepsy (p.77).

There are a few typographical errors, the most egregious of which is “San Michael” for San Michele” in the title of Axel Munthe’s celebrated autobiography (p.171; an autocorrect?). The index is commendably thorough, a cut above the perfunctory apparatus one encounters in most textbooks.

There is a wealth of information in this book, evidently a labour of love. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in or interested in the care of people with epilepsy. At just £12, it’s a steal!