BOOK REVIEW – THE ICE MERCHANT by Paul Boor
Posted On Nov 11, 2016
Ruchel Louis Coetzee
Author Paul Boor’s latest novel, set in Galveston, Texas in 1889, is a gripping tale of the post-civil war ice trade and how corpses (even murdered corpses) were trafficked to emerging new medical schools. It is a thrilling escape into a world of gentlemen intrigue, dangerous liaisons, and hidden secrets. More importantly, the story brings to light the challenges the medical community faces in the pursuit of medical cures. Brilliantly crafted, you won’t want to put this book down.
Paul Boor, M.D., is a scientist and professor at Galveston’s medical school, the oldest west of the Mississippi, and home to the highest-level, infectious Bio-Lab. His first novel, The Blood Notes of Peter Mallow, was a modern biomedical thriller acclaimed as “real, raw, and on the edge.” In “The Ice Merchant,” Dr. Boor goes back in time to explore the history of medical research and the body trade, while spinning a tale of romance and human imperfection.
We stole some moments with Dr. Boor to learn more about this fascinating story.
What compelled you to write this story?
It’s just such a blast to write historical fiction!!
For background, I am a physician-scientist, so I studied gross anatomy while in medical school in Boston. I’ve also been a writer since high school, and a few years ago (well after medical school) I was writing and publishing short stories. One particular short story explored the medical schools that blossomed in the U.S. during the mid-1800s, a time when human dissection and body snatching were, of necessity, everywhere. That short story was the most fun to write; accurately re-creating the period was challenging; and these medical school characters, I realized, were the very foundation of science and medicine today. Once I had completed and published my modern biomedical thriller, which is set in Galveston’s high level infectious disease lab (“The Blood Notes of Peter Mallow”), I began work on this historical novel, “The Ice Merchant.”
I grew up in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountain region, an area full of beautiful, crystal-clear lakes where the ice-harvesting business proliferated during this same time period, from the mid-1800s well into the 20th century. That’s where I got the idea for my character Nicolas Van Horne, an ice merchant with a side business of delivering cadavers to the medical schools that were proliferating in cities along the Mississippi — a sort of “gentleman body snatcher.”
Basically, the compelling issues I address in my fiction are the inner workings of medical schools, research labs, and what it means to be a scientist. I contend that the workings of those great scientific and medical minds back in 1889 were the same as in folks who labor in the science labs and medical schools of today. I hope that Francis and Renée Keiller’s quest for a cure for yellow fever in “The Ice Merchant” serves to illustrate that idea.
What caught you by surprise during your research?
The enormity and importance of the ice trade in our country’s history was a surprise. Several nonfiction books illustrate this – foremost among them is “The Frozen Water Trade” by Gavin Weightman. Do you wonder why we drink mixed drinks with ice? Or why our beer is so much colder than in Europe? Why we invented the “icebox” and refrigeration? Or how about Eugene O’Neill’s “The Ice Man Cometh”? — All because of the 1800s ice trade.
A second surprise was how controversial and divisive the “body snatching” business was. This was also an issue in Europe, as medical schools developed their scientific approach to medicine, and demand for bodies for human dissection grew. Yet there was no legal way to obtain bodies. (I address this further in the next answer.) Amazingly, during this period there were actual attacks on medical schools in several U.S. cities — a classic example of town-gown foment and controversy that I show in my novel.
The toll that Yellow Fever took in human life, historically, was shocking to me. Coastal cities such as Galveston would lose 1/4th to a half of their population during a summer outbreak of this dread disease.
A final surprise came to me by reading old newspapers and magazines, largely on micro-fiche, stored in Galveston’s fabulous Rosenberg Library or in the Woodgate, N.Y., public library. I didn’t realize how deeply north-south feelings and issues ran at this time. But if you think about it, the Civil War was still fresh in the public’s mind, as close as we are today to the Vietnam War, for example. This North-South tension plays out in “The Ice Merchant” in Nicolas’ dealings in the busy port city of Galveston.
How does the medical community obtain cadavers for research today?
It is amazing that as medical schools proliferated and grew in importance, there was no legal way to obtain bodies for dissection. The laws for donating your body to science were written state-by-state, well into the 20th century. For example, Texas Willed Body Programs were not legalized until the 1940s.
Today, there are two ways to donate one’s body to science for medical dissection. Anatomical Donation Programs allow the next-of-kin of deceased persons to donate; Willed Body Programs allow a living person to donate his or her body while still alive. Most states run these programs through a specific Anatomic Donation Board, usually associated with their medical schools, as in Texas. Most importantly — there are organ donation programs where, when possible, specific organs or tissues (heart, kidney, liver, skin, etc.) can be donated for the benefit of living persons in organ-transplant programs.
On reflection, what lessons do you think are learned from this historical story?
I hope the reader comes away from “The Ice Merchant” with a better appreciation of how science and dedicated researchers worked in the past, and continue today, to understand killer human diseases.
My historical novel also points out the role that anatomic study of the human body, and biologic phenomena in general, have formed the basis of modern medicine. We’ve come a long way since 1889, but the human qualities of intelligence, inquisitiveness, experimentation, and compassion remain the same.
Can you tell me what you will be working on next?
I’m working on another historical set in Galveston’s Medical School in 1900, the year of the “Great Storm” that nearly destroyed the city and took over 6,000 lives.
A brash young scientist, fresh from the great experimental labs of Europe, arrives with the distinct talent of sketching while studying biologic phenomena under his microscope; hence the title “Sordahl’s Sketches”. Andreas Sordahl is toying with a deadly organism he brought from the continent, a virus at the dawning of the viral age. The hell-bent scientist is exposing his bug to the new-found radioactive element radium, with disastrous results that he’ll solve only with the help of calmer heads and in the midst of a killer hurricane. There’s an evil medical school dean in this one, a scrappy young woman of the “modern” age, and — of course — there will be romance.