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Sawbones makes medical history fun

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Of the many podcasts that are part of the McElroy brothers’ literal universe of podcasting content, Sawbones has the most appeal to listeners whose interests don’t pertain to some kind of media. A medical history podcast, Sawbones is hosted by Justin McElroy (also the host of My Brother, My Brother and Me, and The Adventure Zone) and physician Sydnee McElroy, his wife.

Unlike MBMBaM or The Adventure Zone, a comedy life-advice podcast and a comedy Dungeons & Dragons podcast respectively, Sawbones’ format resembles a small, informal lecture by Sydnee McElroy covering a medical topic (interspersed with jokes and questions, often comically ignorant of the subject matter) which varies weekly.

Now, even though I have next to no medical knowledge, Sawbones is enjoyable not just because it’s accessible oftentimes, Justin’s ignorance takes the place of our own as he elicits more accessible explanations of frequently complicated medical jargon and topics from Sydnee.

One might be excused for thinking that a podcast about medical history sounds like it belongs in the lower rungs of the podcast catalogue ranked by their entertainment value, but Sawbones gets two things right, both of which propel it away from the pitfalls of potential boredom, and into a niche that is both entertaining and informative.

Firstly, the topics covered on Sawbones are usually interesting themselves, or have an interesting history behind them. One episode focuses on hysteria, for example, which in antiquity used to be considered an actual disease, affecting only women. In actuality, hysteria served as a cover-all term used to refer to many different physical afflictions and mental health disorders, often associated with pregnancy or menstruation, symptoms of which male doctors at the time chose to discard under the assumption that women were just not as well-equipped to deal with life as men, and were therefore prone to “fits of hysteria.”

Episodes range from the outlandish (for example cannibalism, or the practice of tattooing people for medical reasons), to more serious episodes covering cholera, opioid addiction, or the now-debunked practice of eugenics.

If anything, the variety of topics covered in different episodes usually underlines an argument in favour of modern medical science. Either by exploring an ailment that is currently crippling to certain parts of society, such as opioid addiction, or by lampooning outdated beliefs and practices, such as the consumption of tobacco for its “medical benefits.” (“It soothes your T-Zone!”)

Sometimes, however, the unsavoury history of some “medical facts” is discussed. Eugenics, for example, which purports a theory of selective procreation in pursuit of a quote-unquote “superior gene pool” is discussed throughout an episode which doesn’t mince words in denouncing the practice as having been clearly implemented in bigoted circles of society, most infamously Nazi Germany.

More often than not, however, the exchange between Sydnee and Justin makes the half-hour episodes go by pretty quickly. If you’re looking to spice up your morning commute, and wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two about medical history, you could do a lot worse than Sawbones.

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