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Who? - The most remarkable people you've never heard of (Book review)

‘Who? — The most remarkable people you’ve never heard of’ by Donough O’Brien. Pp ix+217. Price £12.99. London: Bene Factum Publishing; 2013. ISBN 978 1 903071 99 1

Having already produced one book about places that became famous (or infamous) by a twist of fate and another listing “the slips and screw-ups” that brought the famous down to earth, Donough O’Brien is making a specialty of recording quirky facts. His latest book is an alphabetical list of around 200 people, mainly from Europe and North America, and the contributions each of them made in fields as diverse as military, political and social history, the arts, sciences, sport, entertainment, food and medicine.

Although many of the names are long forgotten or never properly acknowledged, the subtitle “The most remarkable people you’ve never heard of” is not entirely accurate. Many readers will recognise the likes of Sir Joseph Banks, Pierre de Coubertin, Sir Humphrey Davy or Jethro Tull, although perhaps not the details of their achievements.

O’Brien is a former army officer and there are plenty of military stories. These include the driver whose navigational error triggered the 1914–18 War, why French Foreign Legionnaires salute a wooden hand on 30 April each year and how using horse chestnut “conkers” to make the acetone needed to manufacture ammunition brought about the foundation of Israel. However, the reader will also find much of general interest. The man who created Chanel No 5 is included as are the designer of the White House in Washington, the inventor who made rock music possible and the man who pioneered the forward pass in American football.

Stories from the field of medicine make up slightly less than 10 per cent of the book. They include the Russian surgeon who invented triage, the man who pioneered the prophylactic use of heparin for deep vein thrombosis, how Banting and Best came to work together to isolate insulin, the importance of Florey and Chain to developing penicillin and the origins of the intraocular lens, botox in plastic surgery and HeLa cells.

The miscellany-of-facts genre of books has expanded greatly in recent years but “Who?” is well written in a light, often humorous style. It is well worth reading.

Roger Poole is a retired community pharmacist.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11132017

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