How Bill Bryson went on his most fascinating journey yet to discover more about the human body... and found a startling secret about himself!

In the flesh, Bryson, a 67-year- old father-of-four and grandfather-of-ten, is comfortably rumpled with a greying beard and pebble glasses. Writing The Body has made him newly respectful of the one he’s walking around in but he’s not planning to change the eating, drinking and exercise habits that so endear him to his readers

If you unzipped me and told me to reach in and find my spleen, I wouldn’t have a clue,’ says Bill Bryson. 

‘Who would? What’s half an inch under our skin is a mystery.’ 

He’s not wrong – a fact brought home to him just as he’d begun researching his latest book about the human body.

An MRI scan for a hernia, a minor medical issue, revealed the bestselling author had only one kidney. 

It’s not that the other had suddenly given up. 

He’d never had a matching pair and had made it into his 60s without knowing. 

‘I had 24 hours of paranoia,’ he says. 

‘Apparently, if you only start with one then it’s pretty robust but the doctors might as well have told me to stop worrying about death itself. Finding out really drove home to me how little we know about our insides.’

In his earlier science book, the hugely popular A Short History Of Nearly Everything, Bryson looked out into the universe. 

Now, in The Body: A Guide For Occupants, he looks inwards, examining every inch of us from the head, where hair grows at the rate of one third of a millimetre a day, to our feet, which contain 52 of the body’s 206 bones, double the number the spine needs to hold us up. 

This remarkable new book – ‘it’s a kind of owners’ manual,’ he says – will be serialised exclusively in The Mail on Sunday over the next three weeks.

What Bryson learned along the way left him so awestruck he’s now tempted to leave himself to medical science when he dies. ‘If they’ll have me – it’s more popular than you think,’ he says. 

‘But being in a dissecting room with cadavers and medical students… that was the day I felt true wonderment. Our insides are such a mess, they don’t look capable of doing all the complicated things humans do. 

Above all was how I felt about the brain, which looks like a large pudding. How can there be human love in there, just because of electrical impulses?

How Bill Bryson went to discover more about the body... and found a startling secret about himself! - Daily Mail

If you unzipped me and told me to reach in and find my spleen, I wouldn’t have a clue,’ says Bill Bryson. ‘Who would? What’s half an inch under our skin is a mystery'. A stock image is used above [File photo]

‘Your body is mostly scaffolding and plumbing. Your brain is you. Yet 75 to 80 per cent of it is water and the rest is fat and protein. Imagine someone giving you a pail of water, some fat and some protein and being told to shake it up and make a brain. 

A very patient computer scientist calculated that 1.2 billion copies of my book could be stored in a piece of brain the size of a grain of salt. If that’s not amazing, you tell me what is.’

It’s this curiosity, humanity and sense of fun that has seen Bryson become one of Britain’s most beloved writers since The Lost Continent, his travelogue around his native America, was published in 1989. (It famously begins: ‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’) Along the way he has sold many, many millions of books.

He seemed to specialise in funny, gimlet-eyed trips to unfamiliar places until A Short History Of Nearly Everything stunned the worlds of science and publishing in 2003. 

It became the biggest-selling non-fiction book of its decade in Britain and the Royal Society awarded Bryson the same prize it gave Professor Stephen Hawking for A Brief History Of Time. 

Now the nation is holding its breath (generally you breathe in and out 20,000 times a day) for its companion.

How Bill Bryson went to discover more about the body... and found a startling secret about himself! - Daily Mail

Bryson was clueless about his single kidney until after he’d begun writing the book, which is really a quest to find out what lies under everyone’s skin

In the flesh, Bryson, a 67-year- old father-of-four and grandfather-of-ten, is comfortably rumpled with a greying beard and pebble glasses. 

Writing The Body has made him newly respectful of the one he’s walking around in but he’s not planning to change the eating, drinking and exercise habits that so endear him to his readers.

‘I have never been vegan or vegetarian and I would actively hate to go teetotal. My favourite drink in the world is red wine.’

Any one in particular? ‘A cheap one. Something from the bottom of the supermarket shelf. I love the taste of a rough table wine – if it costs £3 a bottle, so much the better.’ 

He was an ardent smoker from the age of 14 until his late 30s – ‘I’d come out of school in Des Moines and light up, thinking I was real cool’ – and while he stays fit by walking and gardening, he shuns the gym. The last time he was slim was for his daughter’s wedding two years ago ‘but I did that for her, not for myself’. 

What does he weigh? ‘I don’t know.’ What is his body mass index? ‘Oof, I don’t want to know.’ He’s always enjoyed robust good health. 

There have been no serious illnesses or accidents which inspired him to write The Body and he was clueless about his single kidney until after he’d begun writing the book, which is really a quest to find out what lies under everyone’s skin (which you shed at a rate of 25,000 flakes a minute).

Every page is dense with scientific facts written as vividly as a thriller, as well as answers to conundrums such as why we don’t fall out of bed when we are asleep; why our own stomach acids don’t eat us alive; why it’s impossible to tickle yourself; and why your brain can only see soap lather as white when soap itself can be any colour.

It is woven through with the kind of human stories that Bryson has made his trademark. 

There are tales of selfless endeavour such as that of Berlin doctor Werner Forssmann who, in 1929, stuck a catheter up the artery in his arm and pushed it around his shoulder, through his chest and into his heart to see if it was possible. 

He feared it might kill him and when it didn’t, he walked to the radiology department of his hospital and asked a colleague to record his discovery on X-ray. His experiment revolutionised 20th Century heart surgery.

There are amusing stories such as the sailor who had an at-sea appendectomy performed by his ship’s pharmacy assistant armed with a first-aid manual and wearing a surgical mask made out of a teabag. (The sailor lived.)

There are several stories of medical advancement powered by personal desperation. 

How Bill Bryson went to discover more about the body... and found a startling secret about himself! - Daily Mail

Bryson said: 'Our insides are such a mess, they don’t look capable of doing all the complicated things humans do.. Above all was how I felt about the brain, which looks like a large pudding. How can there be human love in there, just because of electrical impulses?'

Take the American Lawrence brothers: John, a physician, and Ernest, a nuclear physicist, deployed a newly invented particle accelerator Ernest had just built at Berkeley University to destroy their mother’s cancer.

The procedure was agonising but she survived to enjoy another 22 years of life, heralding the age of radiation therapy to treat cancer.

And then there are profiles of extraordinary characters who changed human history. 

The godfather of American surgery, William Halsted, was addicted to cocaine after a career spent experimenting with it as an anaesthetic. He was a brave and brilliant doctor, nonetheless. 

He performed a radical gall bladder operation on his mother on the family’s kitchen table and gave his sister two pints of his own blood as she haemorrhaged following childbirth – one of the first known transfusions. 

How Bill Bryson went to discover more about the body... and found a startling secret about himself! - Daily Mail

This remarkable new book – ‘it’s a kind of owners’ manual,’ he says – will be serialised exclusively in The Mail on Sunday over the next three weeks

Both women recovered. Halsted never kicked his drug habit but he went on to invent the surgical glove, saving many more lives.

Bryson also writes about the dastardly rivalries of great scientists down the centuries – Frederick Banting and J. J. R. Macleod, the men who gave the world insulin, hated each other.

And he includes numerous takedowns of quackery, fakery and ego. 

The self-promoting New York surgeon Henry Heimlich, who invented the abdominal compressions that can save someone from choking, only ever got to use his own technique once, in his 90s, saving a fellow pensioner in their nursing home. 

Without these characters, Bryson points out, The Body would simply be another medical textbook, and it is far more than that.

The final chapter, appropriately, is about death. Since Bryson has lived in the UK for many years, in North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Dorset and now Hampshire, I ask if his life expectancy is American (78.6 years) or British (81.6 years). 

‘I’d like whichever is higher,’ he laughs, ‘but since I was born and brought up in America I will probably have to go with that.’

In case he gets sick he’s written a living will, a document that expresses someone’s wish to die if they are unable to articulate it themselves. 

His wife Cynthia, their sons, David, a surgeon, and Sam, and daughters Felicity and Catherine, know it’s in his desk at home. He is quietly in favour of assisted dying too.

‘I am not campaigning for it, I am not going to man the barricades, but I believe it is humane and that when the time is right it should be an option.’

Right now he’d simply like a long lie down. ‘My body feels done in by writing a book about it,’ he jokes. 

He’s worked so hard that he might have rubbed the whorls off his fingerprints. 

Actually you can’t do that, though you can be born with none. It’s called adermatologlyphia and is useful if you are a career criminal.

We finish with some quickfire questions. What’s his favourite part of his body? ‘My brain.’ Of Cynthia’s? ‘Her face.’ 

The most unbelievable fact he uncovered writing this book? ‘That you have a metre of DNA in every cell and so many cells that if you unpacked them and formed your DNA into a single fine strand there would be enough to stretch to Pluto.’ 

Does he want to be buried – decomposition in a sealed coffin takes between five and 40 years – or cremated, which turns you into 5 lb of ash? ‘I don’t care. You can toss me into a ditch when I’m done.’

Finally, how does he feel about organ donation? ‘Unquestionably happy. People are welcome to make use of me. I’ve only got one kidney but it’s a really good one.’

The Body: A Guide For Occupants, by Bill Bryson, is published by Doubleday on October 3, priced £25. 

Offer price £18.75 (20 per cent discount) until September 30. To pre-order, call 0844 571 0640 or go to mailshop.co.uk.