This is a book about a kind of cabinet of curiosities that is itself its own kind of cabinet of curiosities: beautiful, rare, eccentric, obsessional. One of the most popular attractions in the Mütter Museum, the world-famous medical museum in Philadelphia, is the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection: a beguiling set of drawers filled with thousands of items that had been swallowed or inhaled (both by accident and deliberately), including a crucifix, hundreds of safety pins, a toy goat, a padlock, and a "Perfect Attendance" pin.
Mary Cappello uses Jackson's collection as a starting point for a lyrical, sympathetic exploration of swallowing—its meanings, its assumptions, its experiences, even its rhetoric. She restores the narratives, lives, and desires of the physician-artist Dr. Chevalier Jackson and his patients who haunt this uncanny collection and uncovers a history of racism and violence, of forced ingestion and "hysteria" (such as the woman who swallowed 26 open safety pins that interlocked in her stomach, along with a 4-meter length of string), of class and poverty that left children to bank their family's last quarters in their mouths (such as the boy whose father broke his arm when he failed to return from the hospital with the quarter he had swallowed). In Swallow, Cappello brings her original sensibility to bear on Jackson's 1938 autobiography as she highlights the achievements of this activist-inventor, probes his traumatic childhood, and brilliantly retells a life story rife with marvelous forms of rescue.
As with Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, in Swallow a collection of objects forms a surprising narrative that journeys deep into the nature of human experience. A literary and psychological exploration, the book seeks to understand rather than gawk at sword swallowers, women who lunched on hardware, and a boy who wasn’t saved because he wasn't believed. Cappello invites us to enter the seat of human appetite, language, aggression, breath, and even knowledge—the human mouth—in an original and creative tour de force.
They are fodder for the giggles and groans in every ER: the alarming X-rays of coins, toys, buttons, safety pins, needles, and other nonedibles of both the benign and potentially fatal variety. Award-winning author Cappello (Called Back) brings a poet's sensibility and a journalist's fascination to the modern history of foreign body ingestion through the story of early 20th-century endoscopy pioneer Chevalier Jackson, who meticulously documented his extractions, which along with his tools are on display at Philadelphia's medical Mutter Museum. "We have entered... a form of literature and not of science, a philosophical treatise... for a theater of the absurd," marvels Cappello of the detritus Jackson retrieved from throats and stomachs. Hewing closely to Jackson, Cappello chronicles the odd cases and people and in one case, an entire family who built his practice and reputation. Their improbable accidents elicit gasps of astonishment; how did a baby swallow more than two dozen pins, needles, and cigarette butts? Cappello smartly focuses on Jackson's peculiar life, wondrous fine art, and diligent science, transforming an intriguing medical history into a lyrical biography. Medical practitioners and nonprofessionals will be equally fascinated.