Triumph of the Heart, as its name does not suggest, is about science. The book’s author, Jie Jack Li, is a medicinal chemist who meticulously reviews the history relevant to the discovery of lipid-lowering drugs. He spares no details, even recounting the amusing quarrels and quirks of the scientists engaged in the “apocryphal showdowns” leading to the manufacture of cholesterol in a laboratory.
The personalities of the various scientists and Nobel laureates described in the book are highly entertaining. From beating one another with umbrellas, to insisting on wearing blue clothing only, to egos so large and unappealing as to empty an entire academic center of all its promising young recruits, one has the distinct impression that brilliance does not go hand-in-hand with grace.
That being said, each of these scientists did seem to share a common approach to research: carefully testing hypotheses, repeating peer study results to confirm them, and patiently exploring complex biochemical pathways over periods of decades. The physicians, physicists, and chemists showed an incredible ability to doggedly pursue answers to specific questions – understanding that the results might influence human health. But even more importantly, they were each willing to invest their careers in analysis that may never lead to anything more than a dead end. In fact, the book is full of examples of great ideas, developed over decades, that did not lead to a marketable drug. In some cases the research was halted due to lack of efficacy, in others political forces or personal whims influenced the course.
What strikes me about the scientists described in Triumph of the Heart, is how rare it is nowadays for people to have the sort of patience required for laboratory work. In an age where kids suffer from iPhone and video game addictions, young adults expect a relaxed work environment with high salaries and no accountability, and adults are flummoxed by stores that are not open 24 hours… who has time for the hard work of science? Even The Onion, my favorite spoof newspaper, mocks modern attention spans calling science “hard.”
Triumph of the Heart is about much more than the discovery and development of statins. It traces the historical development of the first antibiotics, pain medicines, diuretics, and steroids, the rise, fall and merger of drug companies, patent wars, the unethical conduct of some researchers, and the financial pressures that shaped the industry, both in the U.S. and abroad. Other than Mr. Li’s inability to resist his chemist’s urge to delve into advanced concepts in organic chemistry (around mid-book) as a physician I found Triumph of the Heart to be quite interesting, and well researched.
The most important take away, however, is that science is about hard work, attention to detail, innovative thinking, advanced analytic skills, serendipity, and the patience of Job. These qualities are rarely found in alternative medicine practitioners (or their research) – which is why they have contributed very little, beyond placebo, to the advancement of medicine. Triumph of the Heart reminds us all what good science is about, and how life-saving discoveries are made.