When illustrator and author David Macaulay, best known for The Way Things Work, first started an ambitious new book explaining how the human body worked, he soon gave up. He didn't have a science background past high school chemistry and biology classes—neither of which he particularly enjoyed—which made explaining and drawing concepts like the sharing of electrons between atoms or how people feel pain tricky, to say the least. "I realized very quickly how complicated it was," he says. "I was trying to tackle everything from cells to molecular biology, but I knew nothing about it. I didn't even know what questions to ask. It was like doing a book in Russian." So he stopped trying.
But many years later, in 2000, he picked up the project
again and threw himself into it, spending six years studying anatomy, biology and physiology, even observing surgeries and examining cadavers. Still, he wondered, how could he authoritatively produce a book about the human body, from the cellular level on up, with no real medical background? He found the answer in long-time friend Lois Smith, MD, PhD, researcher and ophthalmologist at Children's Hospital Boston, who shared her dual expertise in chemistry and medicine with him. "When you start a book about something you know nothing about, you become very dependent on the experts," says Macaulay. "I was lucky enough to find a few people along the way, including Lois. She's one of the few people I know who knows a lot about everything—it's actually scary how much she knows."
At first, Smith was shocked by Macaulay's optimism about how much information he could cram into his brain—and into one book. "I kept telling him, 'David, that's a lot to learn! There are libraries dedicated to this!' But he was so interested in figuring it all out that he was determined," Smith says. So she helped shape Macaulay's burgeoning understanding of complex medical ideas by boiling them down into just two sentences. "We started with chemical reactions—which is what people really are, in a way," she says. Having Smith act as a resource became extremely important through the years, as he went from research to illustration. "He'd show me drawings and ask, 'Is this interpretation right or is there more to it?'" says Smith.
As it turned out, Macaulay wasn't the only one who learned a lot from the conversations. Smith spends more than half of her time in a lab doing research and finds that explaining her research to other physicians is challenging. "It's hard to convey what you're doing to someone who's not in the field, since I get down to a very detailed level," she says. "It was interesting to work with David because I had to go one step further to try to explain things so a general reader could understand it."
Working on the project had another unexpected consequence for Smith. "After you've gone to medical school, you get into a routine and you don't think about the knowledge, you just apply it," she says. "But this process brought back that pre-med sense of wonder again. "Macaulay could take an idea that was so complicated and put his stamp of insouciance and whimsy on it and make it so accessible that it was a delight to watch," she says. It probably helped that Macaulay's own enthusiasm for the subject grew by leaps and bounds, the more he learned. "David would exclaim, "Can you believe this? This is so amazing!' and I would say, 'Oh you're right—it is!' He put that sense of awe back into the equation for me again," she says.
Macaulay hopes that readers will be equally fascinated. "I made the book to help people like me understand themselves better and appreciate themselves more," he says. "I hope they appreciate the fact that most of the time so little goes wrong for so long. And that's astounding! We need to really admire, respect and take care of ourselves." He foresees the book finding a niche with clinicians and patients, who could use it as a communication tool. "Patients can see their doctors having had a chance to look at images in the book and visualize the part of their body that's giving them trouble and be better prepared to discuss it," he says. "And doctors could point to an illustration in the book to help explain what they're saying to a patient."
So what's next? "After this, I thought I should pick a slightly smaller subject, so maybe the Earth," Macaulay jokes. Now that he has his de facto medical degree, he's considering doing sub-books on the body. "You get hooked on this stuff," he says. "I now know how little I know." He would love to dedicate a book to just the eye—which would mean another collaboration with Smith. "What will guide the next project is the basic question, 'What would people be excited to learn about and make them take better care of their bodies?'" he says. "Let's face it—we all have one of these things, and I think we're all better off if we know more about what's going on inside it."
The Way We Work came out on Oct. 7. All are welcome to attend an open-to-the-public talk by David Macaulay Thursday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m. in Enders Auditorium.