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A quick and unsettling read
on 13 November 2003
In a sense this is a "lite" version of the late Roy Porter's well-received history of medicine from 1997, entitled The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. He is also the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine (1996) and was until his death professor of social history at University College London.
But let's face it, the history of medicine has not been a pretty story, nor could it have been. Most of history's physicians were flailing about in the dark, the surgeons as sawbones and barbers performing crude amputations and such without the aid of either anaesthetics or disinfectants, the practitioners as faith healers and quacks, dispensing placebos or poisons often without knowing which was which. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the medical profession began to achieve some understanding of the real causes of illness and indeed understand how living things work and how and why they don't work. Porter recalls some of the controversies about the vivisection of cadavers, and arguments about the causes of infectious disease: an argument made difficult because of course the microbes could not be discerned until about the time of Pasteur.
Porter outlines this sobering story from the time of the Greeks to the present day in an objective and easily assimilated style. He organizes the material into eight chapters focusing on Disease, Doctors, The Body, The Laboratory, Therapies, Surgery, The Hospital, and Medicine in Modern Society. Along the way he delves into the politics (some sexual) and into the sociology of medicine around the globe. There are suggestions for Further Reading and an Index.
There are also about 40 rather appalling (some amusing) illustrations from previous centuries in this (for a change) accurately named little tome, showing the horrors of past medical practices. They enliven Porter's text, but you may need a magnifying glass to catch all the nuances--as though you might want to do that!--since some of the prints, while small enough to fit the page are not large enough for the unaided eye.
In short, this is a quick and unsettling read that may make the reader wonder about how future generations will view some of the medical procedures practiced today.