Flowers by Contrecoup

Being brought up in a family with three doctors gives one an odd outlook on life. It was not just the anatomy textbooks, with their foggy monochrome photographs, that rubbed shoulders with the wildflower guides and J.B. Priestley novels in the family library. Nor was it only the medical advertisements that came in triplicate by each post, some embellished with color photographs of lurid lesions, others appealing to the more cultural proclivities of the medical profession. I recall a whole series of advertisements for a preparation called Cetiprin, each adorned with a frameable brass-rubbing of a medieval man-at-arms encased in chain mail and plate armor and labeled, “Pity the Plight of the Ancient Knight without Cetiprin.” Cetiprin was meant to cure incontinence.

The most lasting impression was made by Father’s stories of medical school at Edinburgh before the First World War. There was the one about him and his dissecting partner taking a small packet of rare roast beef into the dissecting room. (“George, stop eating the corpse.”) But the most memorable was the tale of the fracture by contrecoup.

One day the body of a sailor was fished out of the Firth of Forth, just north of Edinburgh. It was duly brought to the Royal Infirmary, but no next of kin came forward to claim it. This left the professor of anatomy feeling conflicted (or maybe it was morbid pathology, the medical specialty where no patient ever answers back). The cause of the seaman’s demise was a textbook example of a certain sort of head injury, what is called (as was explained with the sort of professional detail enjoyed by small boys) a fracture by contrecoup: The contusions are on one side of the head, but the break in the bone of the skull is on the other.

The professor wanted this head for his teaching collection. After some weeks, he could wait no longer and had it severed and pickled, consigning the rest of the body to a respectful burial. As luck would have it, the following week the next of kin made contact—auld Jock had been lost at sea, they wondered maybe if … The professor thought fast. He would not want to deprive the bereaved of the chance to see their relative; on the other hand, he did not want to get into trouble. He had the head laid out under a sheet with a decapitated tailor’s dummy extended below it. The next of kin were led in. Gingerly, the professor drew back the sheet to show the face: “Aye, indeed, that’s auld Jock, he was a guid man … ” They turned and began to leave. The professor started a sigh of relief. They turned: “Professor, may we see the little finger of the left hand.” Well-concealed consternation. The professor drew himself up to his full height (was he not the heir of Lord Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery, of Sir James Young Simpson, promoter of chloroform anesthesia): “No,” he said in oracular tones and a mild court-Scots accent, “you may not see the little finger of the left hand.”

What stuck in my mind was less the immense dignity of professors (not easy to sustain when what you profess is Latin), but the notion of contrecoup. This sense of unintended consequences became a word to live by. Sometimes, says Charles Williams, it is necessary to build the pyre in one place so that the fire from heaven may descend in another. If you teach people about the history of the Near East in the sixth and seventh centuries, they will be less likely to foul up the modern politics of that fouled-up region.

Sancerre is a white wine that works by contrecoup. It is made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape in the Loire region of western France. Take the 2004 vintage of Justin Monmousseau (available around here for less than twenty dollars). The nose is sweet, not sugary, and yeasty like spring flowers. The taste is overpoweringly—but not unpleasantly—acidic, with acrid overtones like the smell made by Boy Scouts when they strike fire from flints. It is the acid that deals the contrecoup. It promotes salivation (sorry to be so anatomical), but what you taste is not just sourness, it is the fresh sense of flowers that you met first in the smell. This Sancerre is as much an idea as a wine. Drink it with simple things, like salad or good goat’s cheese, but perhaps not with rare roast beef.