A BOOK THAT’S ‘HUMERUS’
HUNTINGTON — Back in June 2013, husband-and-wife podcast team Justin McElroy and Dr. Sydnee Smirl McElroy birthed the popular history-filled comedy podcast baby “Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine.” The humor podcast, heard weekly ’round the world on Maximum Fun, features Justin (famed comedy podcaster) and Sydnee (Huntington family doctor), dissecting medical history uncovering all the odd, weird, wrong, dumb and just gross ways doctors have tried to fix people.
Survey says that people like to laugh and learn
things. And these curious people have turned “Sawbones” into the planet’s most popular medical podcast which has been downloaded more than 45 million times since it launched five years ago.
But while the podcast has led them to sold out live shows around the country, the couple thought they could turn it into something more.
What if their combined brains’ essential magical oils could transform the podcast into a book?
OK, there are no magical brain oils, potions or pills that transform podcasts into a book, but after many late nights spent miraculously getting both of their kids to sleep at the same time, the McElroys have created a funny and educational new book.
Since Tuesday, the couple has been celebrating the release of “The Sawbones Book: The Hilarious, Horrifying Road to Modern Medicine” that boils up some of the best of the five years of their hit podcast complete with illustrations by Sydnee’s sister, Teylor Smirl, a graduate of New York’s School of the Visual Arts.
Pick up a signed copy of “Sawbones,” which splays open and pokes fun at everything from bizarre hangover cures to bloodletting, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, as the authors and illustrator will be signing at Books-A-Million at the Huntington Mall. Next week, they will go to New York City for a book signing, so their only other scheduled local book signing is 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Charleston Books-A-Million.
Pretty early on, the couple, who are both Marshall graduates and veterans of local theater, knew that the unique blend of medical history spiced with modern humor was ripe for the growing industry of fun, fact-filled science-based books. About two years and 100 episodes into the podcast the McElroys started working on the book by taking the best of their shows and boiling them down into the book that they knew would appeal to their fans (about 200,000 people download the podcast weekly) and even a wider audience of fact-book lovers.
“We always knew it kind of lent itself to that... the material was so interesting and fun and there are a lot of like historical, trivia type of books like that already so we knew it was the kind of thing that would easily turn into a book,” Sydnee said. “So I think even when we first started doing it we talked about this would make a good book, without any intention of pursuing it, just abstractly saying it, but thinking this would be a book that I would like to read and other people would enjoy it.”
As they explain in the foreword: “We started with some of our favorite episodes and dove deeper, expanding them into beautifully illustrated stories, they wrote. “Medical history has no shortage of ridiculous characters, misguided diagnoses, stomach-churning treatments, and occasionally, incredible miracles.”
In order to capture medicine’s “tortuous journey from complete ignorance to, well, something slightly more competent,” Sydnee began fleshing out their original podcast scripts with each chapter having the main story, sidebars infused with Justin’s quick, funny quips and Sydnee’s breakouts of “Fun Medical Facts” on each subject.
To get the right contemporary artist to bring their historical medical storytelling alive, they did not have to look far. Sydnee’s middle sister, Teylor is an artist whose work has been featured in comics such as “Amazing Forest” as well as her own series, “Flightless Birds.”
Teylor came on board to add her detailed illustrations to the stories that also use reprints of old ads of odd medical cures and products from centuries past.
“I think the number one thing was which of the stories that we had done could lend itself to a visual medium,” Justin said. “We knew that we wanted to work with Teylor, and we always had her in mind. That wasn’t nepotism, it was that her style is a really good fit for what we do — that beautiful, grotesque style is ‘Sawbones.’”
The bones of the book
The book is broken into four distinct parts:
PART I IS THE UNNERVING: It has 11 different chapters splaying open everything from weight loss and erectile dysfunction to spontaneous combustion and The Black Plague.
PART II IS THE GROSS: It contains 13 different topics from mummy medicine and the unkillable Phineas Gage (who had an iron rod go through his skull and still live) to “The Straight Poop.”
PART III IS THE WEIRD: An exploration of 10 topics including “Honey,” “Arsenic,” “Self Experimentation” and “Homeopathy.”
PART IV IS THE AWESOME: It contains nine chapters including “Death by Chocolate,” “Vinegar,” “Detox,” and “Parrot Fever.”
Each part has a “Doctor is In” chapter during which they “take a break from rubbernecking at the flaming wreckage on the medical history highway to answer real questions from real listeners of the “Sawbones” podcast.
Those topics swing from “What happens to my appendix when it is removed?” to “Does an apple a day keep the doctor away?” And don’t be afraid, but they also toss in some pop quizzes to test your own medical knowledge.
Learning from the past
While doing the podcast and the book has helped Justin to sporadically win friends and influence people with his newfound, not-always-remembered and always random ancient medical knowledge, Sydnee, who still works part-time as a family doctor for Marshall Family Medicine, said the journey into the medical past, and sometimes up to the present, has been both fun and enlightening.
While the tour of ancient remedies has its train wreck ideas such as bloodletting, there’s some remedies and practices that actually still work.
For instance, honey was used for a variety of issues by nearly all ancient cultures from the Chinese and Greeks to the Mayans. Honey is still used medicinally today.
“We avoided an episode on honey for a while, and this is how the show has grown,” Sydnee said. “Initially, I only looked for stuff that was just objectively wrong. ‘We did this thing, it is completely wrong and if we do it now it is completely different’ and that was the show. Honey was a little more difficult, because they weren’t completely wrong, we used it for infections before we knew they were infections. And then we came up with antibiotics and we started using antibiotics, but now that we have overused antibiotics so much we have resistance, we are using honey again. There is Meta-Honey that you can use at the hospital. I have ordered it at our hospital for patients here and it works. It is a very effective product, and we got that right thousands of years ago so it is interesting to see that some times they weren’t wrong, some observations weren’t wrong, but a lot of them were. You start using the scientific method and you start getting more hits.”
Sydnee said the five years — and counting — of researching health topics and common practices through the years, has not only created a fun, entertaining and educational book, but she feels has made her a better family doctor.
“I am a lot better saying T don’t know’ and being comfortable with the idea that medicine is an ongoing process and we are learning and growing and understanding the way our bodies work, and the best way to manage them every day/′ Sydnee said. “We get stuff wrong obviously, not just in history, but currently, and we do better as we move forward and we do better as we learn from the stuff that we got wrong. I am a lot more comfortable with that. In that, I hope I have found a way to advise patients better. ‘Here is what we know, here is the best advice I can give you but hopefully here is how I can help you live a better life until I can figure out a better answer to what your problem is.’
There are so many things in family medicine where there might not be one answer for it if you are talking about diet and exercise, people wanting to lose weight or chronic pain. There is no great one answer for it and so I think looking at all the misadventures through history has helped me become comfortable in that gray zone where I don’t have a definitive answer.”
DIGGING INTO ‘SAWBONES’
THE BOOK: “The Sawbones Book: The Hilarious, Horrifying Road to Modern Medicine” (Weldon-Owen, $24.99)
THE SIGNINGS: 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Books-A-Million at the Huntington Mall and 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Charleston Books-A-Million.
THE CREATORS: Authors are husband-and-wife Huntington residents Justin McElroy and Dr. Sydnee Smirl McElroy. Illustrations are by Huntington native Teylor Smirl, who now works in New York City.
THE PODCAST: The book is based on the McElroy’s hit comedy podcast “Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine” that they have been recording since June 2013. The podcast is released on Friday’s on Maximum Fun Network. Go online at http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/saw-bones.to hear the show which has about 200,000 listeners per episode. The podcast is now on episode No. 249.
ON THE WEB: The book is available now at https://www.weldonowen.com/sawbonesbook and other stores.
‘THE SAWBONES BOOK’
“This is a book about medical history and nothing we say should be taken as medical advice or opinion. It’s for fun. Can’t you just have fun for once and not try to diagnose your mystery boil? We think you’ve earned it. Just sit back, relax, and let this book distract you from that ... weird growth. You’re worth it.” — Clint McElroy in the introduction to “The Sawbones Book: The Hilarious, Horrifying Road to Modern Medicine”