The art of writing about the human heart

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Bill Schutt’s first two nonfiction books were about vampire bats and cannibalism. For his third, both his agent and editor urged him to find something more mainstream. He began researching the human heart — its mysteries and science, from prehistory to today. The result is “Pump: A Natural History of the Heart” (Workman/Algonquin), published this month.

“This is not a textbook,” he said. “I want my readers to learn a lot, but I want it to be painless.”

The urge to educate comes naturally; before going to work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Schutt was a professor of biology at Long Island University. He found the study of the heart to be equally as strange as research for his earlier books. “There were just as many quirky, interesting stories to tell,” he said, noting that some of the details “were as weird as anything I’d written in the book about cannibalism.”

One story he recounts is that of Baby Fae, an infant born in the 1980s with a heart defect. Trying to avoid her certain death, her doctors gambled on an experimental procedure, transplanting the heart of an infant baboon. The operation was a success, but Fae died weeks later. Still, Schutt said, “so many good things came out of that tragic story,” including new access to donor hearts and research on Fae’s condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

New advances on the cardiac horizon, such as the organ regeneration work being done by Dr. Harald Ott, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, thrill Schutt: “What I saw there just blew me away!”

He understands why humans traditionally have seen the heart as the seat of human feeling, since we can all feel our own heartbeat change in response to fear or anger. “Intuitively, it makes sense that the heart would be where emotions came from,” Schutt said. “That’s where you get the connection between the heart and things like love.”

Schutt will read 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22, with illustrator Patricia J. Wynne, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at

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