Two doctors shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 for their work in helping to understand the mechanics of the nervous system. During...

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“Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse”
by Richard Rapport
W.W. Norton, 240 pp., $23.95

Two doctors shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 for their work in helping to understand the mechanics of the nervous system. During the acceptance ceremony, Camillo Golgi spoke first and launched an attack on his fellow recipient’s work. In contrast, Santiago Ramon y Cajal made a modest presentation recounting his work and how it had grown out of the work of many other researchers. The two men then left the stage and never saw each other again.

In “Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse,” Seattle writer and neurosurgeon Richard Rapport weaves together the lives of these two extraordinary men. Their central contribution to science was in their work in deciphering the secrets of neurons, the cells located in the brain and spinal cord that transmit information in the nervous system. Although they battled, neither would have succeeded without the other’s research.

Golgi made the first important discovery while working in a kitchen laboratory at the Hospital for the Incurables in Abbiategrasso, Italy. In 1872, he used silver nitrate to stain samples of nervous tissue making the cells stand out in never-before-seen clarity. Golgi dubbed the process the “black reaction.” With this newfound clarity, he proposed that the nervous system consisted of connected fibers that formed an intricate network.

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Cajal, in contrast, used the black reaction, which he modified and improved, to postulate the existence of the synapse, “that tender junction where nerve cells communicate with each other — but don’t quite touch,” writes Rapport. At first his work was discounted, in part because science in Spain was so far afield from accepted circles that Cajal had to publish his own scientific journal. But when Cajal finally presented his research to the great histologist Albert von Kölliker, Kölliker recognized Cajal’s skills and insights and recognition soon followed.

Rapport writes that Cajal’s discovery of the synapse has had profound implications for basic biology, physiology, psychology and even philosophy. It is clear that Rapport is passionate and knowledgeable about the science and the scientists, but at times his attention to detail bogs down the story. Although written for the general public, this book might be more appropriate for those with the background to appreciate the technical nuances.

Reviewed by David B. Williams

“The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America”
by Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, 229 pp., $26

The Old West, especially in its bittersweet final years, has always been deep in the heart of Texas writer Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s many books about the era — both fiction (“Lonesome Dove”) and nonfiction (“Sacajawea’s Nickname”) — betray that passion. The author’s rich well of knowledge, compulsively readable style and deep affection for his subjects enliven them all.

Here, he examines the lives of two people — William Cody and Phoebe Ann Moses, better known as Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley — who existed both in the Old West’s real life and in the popular imagination about it. People traveled long distances to Cody’s Wild West shows just to see handsome Cody ride around on his white horse, or to witness diminutive Oakley flawlessly shoot target after target. In their prime they were two of the best-known people in the world, rich and renowned celebrities with royalty and presidents among their admirers.

Of course, much of their celebrity was built on the careful cultivation of myth. Separating truth from not-truth is part of McMurtry’s purpose here. Another is to thoroughly relish the pleasures of their juicy legends, truth be damned. Still another is to salute, as he has before, the passing of a colorful era.

McMurtry focuses on what he calls tropes — high points of his subjects’ lives that evolved into embroidered show-business set pieces. Take one highlight of Cody’s Wild West show — a recreation of his deadly “duel” with a Native American, Yellow Hair. Thanks to Cody’s embellishments, Yellow Hair’s reputation grew in time from minor warrior to famous and much-feared chief, and Cody’s legend was burnished that much more.

“The Colonel and Little Missie” is not one of McMurtry’s major works, and it has problems — not least a fair amount of repetition, surprising in such a careful writer. Another problem is that the focus is lopsided — but that’s not McMurtry’s fault; more is known about that publicity hound Bill Cody than on retiring Annie Oakley. But the book is rewarding; even in a minor work like this one, McMurtry is incapable of writing dully.

Reviewed by Adam Woog