Review: “Sawbones,” Podcasting, and the History of Medicine

“Sawbones is a show about medical history and nothing the hosts say should be taken as medical advice or opinion. It’s for fun. Can’t you just have fun for an hour and not try to diagnose your mystery boil? We think you’ve earned it. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy a moment of distraction from…that…weird growth. You’re worth it.”

John Carranza           The opening to the podcast, Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine, becomes so familiar to its listeners that most commit it to memory and can recite it word for word. Wife and husband cohosts, Dr. Sydnee and Justin McElroy, each week take a topic from the history of medicine, and review its past and how it relates to us today. Frequently, the McElroys discuss how the medical community handled diseases like cholera or yellow fever, or alternative medicine like color therapy and crystals. Sawbones even introduces its listeners to compelling historical figures like Typhoid Mary and Phineas Gage. The combination of the podcast format, the comedic gifts of the McElroys, and their unique take on the history of medicine creates a space where listeners can engage with the intersections of history and medicine.

Swiftly becoming one of the most popular and in-demand forms of media of the last five years, podcasting as a format broke onto the national scene off the success of such shows as NPR’s Serial. The medium is easy for the listener to consume at anytime and anywhere. The ease of podcasting also extends to the hosts of shows like Sawbones, since they can record episodes in their own home using relatively affordable equipment. As Andrew J. Salvati points out in his article, “Podcasting the Past: Hardcore History, Fandom, and DIY Histories,” podcasting provides an opportunity for amateur historians to make inroads into a field usually dominated by professional historians. Salvati makes an apt observation, but he neglects a discussion on the potential limitations of the amateur historian in engaging in responsible historical research. While listening to Sawbones, the consumer never really learns how the McElroy’s conduct their research. Instead, the podcast requires the listeners to believe that the hosts consulted credible sources, without letting us in on the process of their research. This is problematic, but is somewhat remedied by the fact that we can trust Sydnee’s medical training in discerning credible sources.[1]

Sawbones’ accessibility to listeners stands out as one of the best features of the show. The listener feels connected to Sydnee and Justin because they relate to one another in the same way members of our own families might: by including humor and avoiding jargon-laden descriptions of medicine. These descriptions provide for memorable moments that aid with recalling details about the history of medicine, such as Justin trying to decipher the etymology of “tetralogy” in the episode simply titled “Tetralogy of Fallot.” Special episodes that answer listeners’ questions about medicine are also ways in which Sydnee and Justin remain connected to their audience. Ensuring that the audience feels linked to the show is obviously necessary for its continuation, but it also instills a sense of importance and usefulness about the history of medicine.

From the show’s beginning, Sawbones attempted to avoid political debates, but Sydnee and Justin realized that the history of conversion therapy and opioid addiction, for example, affect the current state of health in the United States. Each of these topics is treated with respect and aplomb, and sees the issues beyond medicine for their social justice and human rights values. Coupled with the relatability of the cohosts and the vast amount of people that podcasts reach make these issues entirely possible to discuss.

Sawbones is a “must listen” for audiences of most ages and levels of education because the topics are frequently conveyed in easy to understand ways. By having an accessible medium such as podcasting, the listener chooses when to listen to single or multiple episodes, which allows for time to think about and more fully engage with the content. Podcasting, medicine, and comedy are powerful ingredients that fuse together important subject matter for a large audience that reinforces the significance of history in the humanities.

[1] Richard Berry, “Podcasting: Considering the Evolution of the Medium and its Association with the Word ‘Radio’,” The Radio Journal-International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 14, no. 1 (2016): 11-12, 14; Andrew J. Salvati, “Podcasting the Past: Hardcore History, Fandom, and DIY Histories,” Journal of Radio & Audio Media 22, no. 2 (2015): 232.

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