Science in the Spotlight: Sawbones

There are many things we take for granted in this modern age: the ability to communicate with almost anyone anywhere in seconds, non-animal powered transportation, and medicine that rarely involves leeches. It took us a while to get here. Along the way, we threw quite a few ideas at the wall, hoping that maybe they would stick. Got bubonic plague? Strap a live chicken on yourself! Want to become enlightened? Drill a hole in your skull! Want to bring some vim and vigor into your life? Give yourself a coffee enema!


If you find yourself intrigued by these not-so-good ideas, consider listening to Sawbones, a medical history podcast that is sure to convince you not to do any of these things. Hosted by married couple Sydnee and Justin McElroy, Sawbones was born in 2013 and has been running weekly ever since. “Justin and I started doing podcasts just ‘cause we had fun doing them and we like talking to each other,” Sydnee McElroy said.


As a physician and professor at the Marshall University School of Medicine, the podcast is a way for her to combine her medical skills with her interest in medical history. In a typical episode, Sydnee describes a historical topic related to medicine such as a diagnosis, treatment, or (often infamous) figure, while her husband Justin reacts to the often unbelievable narrative.


To prepare the episodes, Sydnee McElroy does plenty of research ahead of time. Often, this research involves Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who attempted to include all ancient knowledge in his magnum opus, Naturalis Historia. “I’ll start there and see what Pliny had to say about it, if he had anything to say about it, usually he did,” she said. Her other sources include the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text from about 1500 BCE, published journals, and the many medical history books fans have sent.


Lately, Sawbones has been covering more modern topics, including DNA testing, CBD oil, the ketogenic diet, and medical ethics and memorialization. According to McElroy, this recent shift has been in part due to observations she made in her own practice, where she found scientific literacy to be lacking.


“I had this much larger audience to talk to, and I felt like I had a responsibility to use that to educate people about modern scientific topics when it was relevant to medicine,” she said. “The more accessible we make [science], the more people are on board with it.” This wide audience has brought a wide range of responses from listeners. According to McElroy, the overall experience has been amazing, but she has faced challenges along the way. Some of these challenges are shared by many women who produce anything in an auditory medium. “For some reason, that empowers people to occasionally let you know what they think of your voice,” she said.


However, Sawbones faces some unique complaints. After an episode on fluoride, McElroy received many angry emails from people who believe fluoride to be a mechanism of government control. “I thought, I don’t know, a handful of people thought that. Way more than 10 people still think that. Because they all emailed us,” she said.


Whether you enjoy learning more about modern medicine or want to hear about tragically horrible medical decisions from the past, there’s plenty of content to choose from—the doctor-husband duo have released 250 episodes and counting. For those less interested in podcasts, you can also now read the Sawbones book, a Grey’s Anatomy-like collaboration between the hosts and illustrator Taylor Smirl that expands on many of the topics discussed in the podcast.