A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Now for something completely different, part 3 …

This week’s postings are very different from those of previous weeks.  The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

Previously, in part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, I explained why the surgery was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, today’s post, I explain why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.

Cordially, Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

By Michael Hinton

To get a second opinion on the possible consequences of McLuhan’s operation I spoke with Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, MD, Ph D, FRCS (c), FACS, and DABNS.   Dr. Del Maestro holds the William Feindel Chair in Neuro-Oncology at McGill, directs the university’s Brain Tumor Research Centre, and is Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurology and Professor of Oncology at McGill’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.  He has performed or assisted in between 5,000 and 6,000 operations to remove brain tumors.  Perhaps not surprisingly, in the small world that is world-class neurosurgery and research, one of his teachers in neurosurgery at Western knew Dr. Mount, and he was also taught and was a colleague of Dr. Henry Barnett, who was McLuhan’s neurologist in the 1970s in Toronto and treated him for his stroke in 1979.  Last but not least, Dr. Del Maestro is a student of genius, in particular the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

When I spoke with Dr. Del Maestro I told him what McLuhan’s biographers had to say about the surgery, and the circumstances leading up to it.  I expected him to tell me that there is little he can say about the possible effects McLuhan might have suffered without seeing his medical records and even so every case is different.  But he did not do so.  Instead he told me that McLuhan must have suffered some cognitive impairment.  The problem was the length of the operation.  Oxygenation is not a concern, however, the problem is that in the surgery, which in its fundamental aspects is carried out today in much the same way as it was done in Dr. Mount’s time, the brain is lifted to get at the tumour by nickel or copper lifts.  Over the many hours the brain was lifted the brain tissue, (the little grey cells Poirot called them) must inevitably be bruised, the cells damaged.  Forgive me for saying this, he said, if you were a construction worker you could recover from a surgery like this and return to work.  But if you’re a surgeon, an architect, or a NATO general performing at a high-level you can never go back and work at the same level.  In all your years of experience, I said to him, have you ever known or heard of anyone who fully recovered from an operation like McLuhan had?  No, he said.  But then, after a brief pause, he said.  Let me think about it.  If I discover such a case I’ll call you.  (So far, he has not called.)

But this isn’t conclusive evidence is it?  What would it take to persuade you if you are presently unpersuaded?

McLuhan’s medical records?  Even if I could show them to you, and I cannot – Columbia –Presbyterian will not release them without permission from McLuhan’s family and the McLuhan family is unlikely to give me their permission to see them – I doubt that would do the trick.

What about testimony  from Dr. Barnett, who treated McLuhan in the 1970s?  Perhaps.  I spoke with him – he is in his 90s – but he would not grant me an interview without the permission of a member of McLuhan’s family.  I phoned Stephanie McLuhan – one of Marshall McLuhan’s daughters.  I left a message asking her permission to speak with Dr. Barnett.  She returned my call, and left a message asking me who Dr. Barnett was, saying that she did not recognize the name.  I phoned back and left a message saying that he was her father’s neurologist.  She did not call me back.

What about letters to and from McLuhan in the months before and after the operation?  These might be revealing.   Unfortunately, McLuhan’s letters from 1967 and 1968 appear to be missing from the McLuhan Papers held by the National Archives.

But consider these two other items and see if they tip the scales.  The Nicholas Olsberg clue and the Annie Hall clue.

[to be continued…]

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 18th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, 1970s and 80s, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to Now for something completely different, part 3 …

  • Deborah Hinton says:


    In 77-78 I attended MM’s last complete seminar. He began the following academic year, but had the stroke and didn’t finish. we had a good year and in January he had the class to his home and Corrine made dinner and McLuhan opened up his sideboard for cordials. It was said that he had a renewed spirit for our class. I guess that says there was a diminished period. So OK things are up and down, big deal. Let’s accept your agument that he was-had a lesser intellect after the surgery. Are you going to measure that as “lost opportunies” or maybe even imbecilic. I hope not.
    I await the next part ready to marshall the clues!

  • Michael Hinton says:

    Michael, thanks for the comment. In answer to your question: I believe the surgery took away his genius, but that does not mean it made him “imbecilic.” Far from it, he remained I believe a smart man, but as I explain in the 5th part of my essay a smart man without the wow factor of genius. What’s in the wow? Incredible focus, drive, energy, memory, fluency …. All the things Ted Carpenter lamented were lost. Consider his son Eric. He is smart but does he have what his father had?

    Thanks again for your comment and for sharing your experience and insights

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