Jeremy Laurance: The weird and wonderful ways of the human body

Medical Life

I loved the 'Guinness Book of Records' when I was a lad. This week, the latest 2010 edition is published. The section on the human body was what grabbed my ghoulish attention back then, and still does so now. Lee Redmond, of the US, had fingernails measuring 28ft 4in – until she unfortunately lost them in a car accident earlier this year. Not before, however, she was photographed next to Melvin Boothe, also of the US, who had the male record for fingernails at 29ft 8in. How did they do up their shirt buttons?

The woman with the smallest waist (Ethel Granger, 13 inches) and the oldest ever to conceive naturally (Dawn Brooke, 59 when she gave birth to a son in 1997) are both British. Along with the tallest, fattest, hairiest members of the human race, records such as these exert an enduring fascination, demonstrating the extraordinary variety of our species. It seems remarkable, given this variety, that doctors are not more often wrong in their diagnoses, operations do not more regularly go awry and drugs do not fail with greater frequency.

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International flu experts are talking of swine flu as the "schizoid" virus. Whilst mild in most people, in a minority it is causing severe, and in some cases life-threatening, disease. Seasonal winter flu is different in that it tends to have a spectrum of activity from mild through moderate to severe. Hence schizoid – swine flu cannot make up its mind whether it is nice or nasty.

I wonder whether this may apply also to the Department of Health and its advisers. On the one hand there is obvious relief that it is not – so far – turning out as nasty as feared. On the other, there is the palpable fear that if nothing out of the ordinary happens this winter, the millions spent on preparing for the pandemic will look ill-spent.

Calling the odds on this one is a mug's game. Who would be in Chief Medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson's shoes?

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The British Medical Association used to be famous for its drinks trolley. Laden with wines, spirits and aperitifs, it would be wheeled out at press conferences in the 1970s for the refreshment of Fleet Street's finest, who would while away the hours before returning to their offices and bashing out 400 words on the association's latest demand for a pay rise, or the introduction of patient charges to curb demand on the NHS.

Later, its Christmas parties were fabled for the limitless supply of champagne – as is still the case today – something poorer relations such as the Royal College of Nursing never felt able to emulate.

Last week, the BMA put the boot into the drinks industry, with its call for a minimum price per unit of alcohol and a total ban on advertising. As we know, a drinker is only in trouble if he is consuming more than his doctor.

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