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Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates [Hardcover]

David Wootton
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

22 Jun 2006
Just how much good has medicine done over the years, and how much harm does it continue to do? The history of medicine begins with Hippocrates in the fifth century BC. Yet until the invention of antibiotics in the 1930s doctors, in general, did their patients more harm than good. In this fascinating new look at the history of medicine, David Wootton argues that for more than 2300 years doctors have relied on their patients' misplaced faith in their ability to cure. Over and over again major discoveries which could save lives were met with professional resistance. And this is not just a phenomenon of the distant past. The first patient effectively treated with penicillin was in the 1880s; the second not until the 1940s. There was overwhelming evidence that smoking caused lung cancer in the 1950s; but it took thirty years for doctors to accept the claim that smoking was addictive. In the 1960s there was the notorious thalidomide tragedy, while today there is the ongoing problem of unnecessary operations, especially in the United States - and this all at a time of rapidly rising healthcare costs. As Wootton graphically illustrates, throughout history and right up to the present, bad medical practice has often been deeply entrenched and stubbornly resistant to evidence. This is a bold and challenging book - and the first general history of medicine to acknowledge the frequency with which doctors do harm.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; 1 edition (22 Jun 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192803557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192803559
  • Product Dimensions: 13.6 x 2.2 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 779,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

David Wootton is an historian, author of Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, and Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates. You can learn more about him at

Product Description


A sad but fascinating story of centuries of missed opportunities, unnecessary suffering and misplaced faith in outlandish remedies. (Nick Rennison, Sunday Times Culture)

The historical catastrophe of medicine has never been so excitingly and stirringly told. (Druin Birch, Times Literary Supplement)

David Wotton [creates] a genuinely thrilling adventure out of the abysmal failings of doctors over the past 2000 years. (Druin Birch, Times Literary Supplement)

A very stimulating and thought-provoking book. (Theodore Dalrymple, Sunday Telegraph)

Ought to be required reading for every first year medical student. (British Medical Journal)

lucid, elegantly written and pleasingly slim book (Will Cohu, Sunday Telegraph)

About the Author

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York. He has published widely in early modern intellectual history, particularly on the history of political thought, and is a regular reviewer for the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read 4 July 2008
A history of medicine with a difference. This book tells more of the failures than of the triumphs and it is all the more richer for that. Medicine should have progressed faster than it did but to blame doctors entirely is not quite giving the whole picture. Similarly there some things that Wooton says that seem wrong in their entirety and putting the start date of medicine in the late eighteen hundred is a little disingenuous and ignores some of the early pioneers. Wooton's dismissal of the early medical profession is a little too arbitrary and the book could have used some better scholarship in backing the arguments it makes. Similarly ignoring economics and politics is also perhaps a little foolhardy especially when debating the dangers of smoking. Wooton manages to have this debate without mentioning Big Tobacco and their lobbies. Nevertheless this is an interesting social history of medicine and one that deserves to be read by all.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doctor bashing - not on your life 24 Oct 2006
This is a well written and thought provoking book. It is supported by a website that is insightful and allows further investigation into some of the aspects raised within the book.

It is not a bash at doctors, but does lay out the history and progression of medicine in a new and fresh way. When I was reading it I spent time laughing and time feeling quite repulsed by some of the things that we have done in the name of medicine.

All I can say is READ it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exhilarating & refreshing 31 Jan 2012
What makes a history readable? Normally for me it's being structured around a biography. Here it's just the vivid narrative. Wootton tells the surprising story of doctors, as his subtitle says, doing more harm than good. It's pithy, persuasive and superbly readable. I couldn't get my nose out of the pages, and it's one of the few books (even amongst those I've enjoyed greatly) that have stayed very much in my mind ever since. Thoroughly recommended, and no particular knowledge or interest is required from the reader - just a willingness to be absorbed in a terrific historical story.
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