Thursday, November 30, 2017

Horrible stories well told: reviewing “Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery”


Three journalists, Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, were shaken by what they found as they did research for a special edition of Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. Their mid-2000's project exposed the newspaper's and Connecticut's participation in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. After saying, “but wait, weren't we the good guys in the Civil War?” and grappling with their new understanding, the three expanded their focus to write the book Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery. Between the ivory trade, the business of kidnapping blacks from the North to sell into slavery, the rum industry, and the textile industry, all of which are described in the book, Northerners were not just complicit in the system of slavery. They participated.

In some ways, I think Complicity would be a better book if it weren't written in the face of the national myth that the North was against slavery without complications. The introduction in particular feels a little sensational and “gotcha,” as if the authors expect readers' minds to be blown by the new information, and that style doesn't hold up well if the reader already knows some of it. The mere fact that Northern traders and industrialists profited handsomely off of slavery is shocking in the sense that it's appalling, but only a surprise to some. In addition, the chapters are poorly linked together, without much to describe how the New Haven carriage makers, Philadelphia taxonomists, and New York slave smugglers fit into the same larger economy. The effect is that each chapter stands alone, but together they form a litany of the different ways the rich and powerful in the North were some of the worst offenders in perpetuating the cruelty of chattel slavery. The exhausting effect on the reader could not, and should not, have been avoided in writing about this subject. However, because Complicity does not have much pulling the chapters into a cohesive whole, you could read three chapters profiling different industries, or thirteen, and get a similar effect.

Of course, this book was indeed written in the face of the national myth that the North was not complicit in slavery, with the intention to wake readers up. The extent to which Northern fortunes were made on the backs of slaves – including those newly kidnapped from Africa in the 1860s, decades after the US outlawed the international slave trade – is not just shocking but genuinely surprising to most people. If we ever reach a time in our society when the impacts of Northern industries are a part of the story of slavery as it's commonly understood, a book like Complicity might be written somewhat differently, making more of a scholarly argument even though it's for a general audience. As it is, the book focuses on making just one statement: this really happened.
                                                    

Despite my wondering what the book would be like if readers already understood “how the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery,” I learned a lot from the book, and enjoyed it to the extent that you can enjoy reading a history of exploitation. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American history. The profiles it gives of various industries involved in the slave economy are highly informative. I sometimes think that journalists make the best history writers in terms of storytelling. Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns which I reviewed on the blog, is an example, as well as modern classics like Barbara Tuchman. In Complicity, Farrow, Lang, and Frank join this tradition, with horrible stories well told. Recalling the Philip Graham quote that journalism is “a first rough draft of history,” the authors mused in the book's conclusion that they were “doing what reporters rarely have a chance to do: present a second draft of history.” The legacy of slavery has been retold and reshaped countless times in American history, so often with the aim of dismissing the extent of the harm or shifting the blame. As a historian and a citizen, I deeply believe that each successive draft of how we understand our past ought to be a more accurate one. It's clear that Farrow, Lang, and Frank share this goal, and have done useful work toward it.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Not just another brick in the wall

"Read some publications from one of the urban youth writing programs in the Boston area, like 826 or WriteBoston" was on my blog list as an interesting way to learn more about my community from perspectives I don't ordinarily encounter. Since I sometimes teach high school field trips but know very few high schoolers personally, I also thought reading some student writing would be a nice way to reconnect with the thoughts and experiences of that age group. 826 Boston is a program based in Roxbury's Egleston Square that teaches young people creative writing, essay writing, and more. I wasn't sure whether I'd end up recommending what I read to other people, since at least some of the writing is bound to be unpolished. 826 has a lot of student work online for free, but I wanted to give some money to the cause, so I bought a book, "Tendríamos asistencia perfecta/Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston." It ended up being one of the most thought-provoking books I've read this year.

The book, which came out last year, was written by seniors at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a new bilingual high school in the Boston Public Schools. Each student interviewed an adult who works in education or is connected to a mentoring or internship program. It's also clear that they did research on an education-related subject of their choice. The result is that the book serves as a useful crash course in current education design theories and practices, as well as a window into real high schoolers' perspectives. The students' proposals included some programs beyond the current BPS budget, but well within the realm of possibility, as other schools do them. A couple of distinct patterns emerged. Students are still asking the age-old question "When am I going to use this?" but here, they envision more vocational training, applied arts and business classes, internships, and dual-enrollment college courses. High schoolers care deeply about whether they fit in, but it's not (solely) about the approval of the popular kids. The student authors talk about school as a place they could be getting the mentorship and support not all of them get at home, and a place where being bilingual can be a source of alienation or of community and cultural exchange depending on their school environment. They also returned often to the theme of learning to be independent and do well at work or college. The de rigueur term for this is "soft skills," such as time management, self-directed tasks, and knowing the implicit dress code of a workplace. Some students wrote about their high school's programs that they want all students to benefit from, and others wrote about opportunities they wish they had. 


The cover of the book is sort of yearbook-style, with small photos of each student in a grid.

The book was an engaging and quick read, but it often challenged my thinking. All of the students wrote their articles in both Spanish and English, but with the exception of the a short bio of each student, the text doesn't appear in both languages. Most of the essays are printed in English, but some are in Spanish and some include an introduction in one language and more detail in the other. As a museum person, I'm used to bilingual text being a feature to help more people access the content, so I expect the same information to be present in both languages. This seemed to be more of a cultural choice, reflecting the use of language at their school, and allowing students to choose which version of their essay they wanted to show the world. As an English speaker in the US, I'm used to being the target audience, language-wise, of anything I pick up. 

One thing that really struck me was the way the students spoke about themselves in their bios -- for many of them, the bio was like a little manifesto of who they are and who they plan to become. In many cases, it was clear to me that the students' lives are very different from my own at their age. Some of the high school seniors are as old as 20, many of them having come to the US partway through their education. They write about not having time for homework because they have work five nights a week, and they all know kids who have dropped out because they want to earn more money to help their families. Several pointed out that vocational training in high school would save them tens of thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass or shorten their training after graduation. I share some other adults' worry that kids will get tracked too young, and particularly that minority students will be pigeonholed by socioeconomic status rather than by their own career goals, but this book helped me see the value in offering vocational training to the students who want it. 

It was obvious that this was not just a school assignment to these students, that many of them really care about what happens for the classes below them. By now, the authors of the book have graduated. I hope they are all on to do the things they dreamed about doing next. I'm left thinking about what those of us who don't work in the school system can do to help students grow. Paid internships and workstudy will help, but all of the high school redesign in the world won't fix some of the underlying problems, whether the students are studying for their cosmetology license or APs -- Boston has a known affordable housing problem and far too many families stuck in poverty. Certainly, voting for city leaders and school committees that will effect change is one step we can all take. We can also get more of our workplaces involved in the internships and other connections to the working world that help kids understand what they're studying and translate it into careers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Day in the life: watching a museum in action

Day 548

11:30 am
It’s been at least a year since I’ve spent a full day in the galleries at the museum where I work, a small medical museum in Boston. Normally, I have contact with visitors a few times a week, when I give tours of the museum, a responsibility that’s shared between staff and our volunteer docents. I’m effectively a curator/educator, and my days are full of researching, designing, and writing exhibits; scheduling group visits and working on educational programs; and putting out fires -- luckily, none literal yet. I spend time in the galleries when I’m refilling supplies, measuring an area for an exhibit in development, installing an exhibit, or talking with our docents or security officer. I strongly believe that spending time in the galleries and observing how visitors interact with the museum is important for museum staffers at all levels. Visitors give us our purpose, and we have to have our finger on the pulse. However, it takes real effort to make the time when there’s so much else to do. Today I’m covering our security desk, so I don’t get to interact with visitors that much, but I do get to be a fly on the wall.
A hand-held clicker for counting visitors.
When a museum's very busy, clicking
in visitors while also talking with them can
take a little dexterity! Today it was easy.

12:30 pm

I got here at around 10:30, and we opened at 11. Since then, we’ve had five visitors, which is about what I expected for a rainy Saturday. Because I’m covering the security desk, I get to use the computer program that shows us a feed from each security camera, tiled in one screen. It’s hard to get used to. People are small in the slightly warped lens views, and sometimes they show up in more than one camera at once, where there’s overlap. It’s hard to distinguish people when they’re not moving, but also, their movements are jerky. It even took me a second to recognize myself. Last summer, we had an intern do some visitor studies using our camera footage, looking at how long the average visitor stays, which corners of the exhibits they walk right by, and so on. I have even more appreciation for the work that she did, and that our security officers do, when I’m reminded of the trickiness of this way of observing people.


1:30 pm
I’m seeing a mix of people who appear to be completists, working methodically through the exhibits, and people who wander around stopping at things that catch their eye. Some of them use our interactive computer screens that play videos, and I’m finding that more than one soundtrack playing at once annoys me, especially on a day like today when it’s otherwise quiet in the museum. We have two films which play on a loop all day; one is silent, but as soon as anything else plays the sounds compete. Part of me wishes that we had less noise and some headphones on the kiosks, but I know that on a busier day the videos mix with the sounds of visitors talking, and while it’s louder it’s also more pleasant. Many museums have moved away from the old model of being still and hushed, and I think that while quiet contemplation has its place in museums, overall, an environment where people can talk and watch videos is great. Still, there’s no perfect balance. A big drawback to our model is that it’s unfriendly to people who are prone to sensory overload. An advantage is that it’s lively and engaging to many visitors who like the “wander and explore” method of visiting.


2:30 pm
Just a silly thing: of course, the phone rang and two visitors walked in just as I was taking a bite of my sandwich. It’s been slower for me now that our afternoon docent is here.


3:30 pm
One thing I’m noticing is that most people coming into the museum are in pairs. I don’t want to presume relationships between people, but it’s probably safe to say most of them are couples. I’m reminded of a blog post I read that pondered why museum-goers are more likely to be married than non-museum-goers. The untested theory, which I feel rings true, is that people with a live-in partner (whether or not they’re married) have an easier time planning trips to a museum, since most people go to museums with other people. Personally, I really like going to museums alone at least some of the time, but I know I’m in the minority there. After the first time I read the statistic about married museum-goers, I daydreamed about designing some sort of app or social media plugin for setting up platonic museum dates: you could post that you’re interested in visiting a particular museum, or any museum on a particular day, and be matched with a friend or stranger. I know some museums take the opposite approach, and have singles nights or general mixers, often catering to the young professional crowd. In reality, I’m not sure this pattern is a problem to be solved, as I think it’s true of a lot of leisure activities -- I’d be interested to see whether matinee movie-goers are more likely to be married, for example.


4:30 pm
We’ve had more visitors since 3 pm than we had the rest of the day combined. The ebbs and flows are pretty unpredictable sometimes. We close at 5, so I’ll be here until a little bit after that. Sitting at a desk near the entrance of a museum is no replacement for actually wandering around the galleries, interacting with visitors or seeing how they react to the exhibits. Still, it’s been an interesting day. I’ll continue to try to make time to be out on the floor. Even fifteen minutes a week, that isn’t for tours or anything except seeing what the visitors are doing, can be a way to help me better understand what resonates with them, which in turn helps me create better exhibits and programs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Digging into Decorative Orbs

Day 544

One of the new things I told myself I would try as part of this blog project was, "Buy something inexpensive and unfamiliar from an antique store and research its story." On a rainy Sunday, I stopped by the Cambridge Antique Market in search of an object to blog about. By the way, for those of you in the Cambridge/Boston area, if you haven't checked this place out, you really should, it's huge and a wonderful place to wander around. As I started browsing, I realized a small hiccup in my plan: when I'm looking at things I know a little about, I can kind of tell whether it's worth picking up and looking at the price tag, or whether it's not priced for me. I don't mean I have any kind of antiquing expertise, just general knowledge, and sometimes I'm very wrong and very surprised. But, when I was specifically looking for things I did't know anything about, I had no sense of whether the doohickey I was looking at would be $5 or $85.

I kind of hoped to find something with traces of its former owner, but that's easier said than done. I found some pieces I'd happily write fiction about the owners of, like a sleek black purse that was either from the 1950s or imitating that period. I went back and forth as to whether I should limit myself to something with a maker's mark -- a brand name, signature, or something else that indicates who made an object. If it had that, I could dig for a little bit of the history of the particular item, rather than just the type of item. I considered a baking tin that had a brand embossed in the side, but I wasn't particularly struck by it.

The thing I settled on has almost no identifying marks, and I'll never know who owned it before me. It could be from one of many different time periods. It's a porcelain sphere about the size of an orange, with a design in white and blue glaze that feels somewhat Asian or Asian-inspired to me. The price tag called it a "porcelain parlor ball." I wondered whether that's an established name for these things, or whether the vendor just decided to call it that -- I've seen a few misleading object names on Cambridge Antique Market price tags. I've seen these balls before. They're just decorative spherical things, as far as I know. But, I found this one pretty, and it was $6, so I decided this would be my object.


A blue and white ceramic ball sitting on a wood floor.
I own this thingy now.

Before the internet, my first stop would have been a regular encyclopedia, or a collector's guide to antiques (available at a lot of libraries). The search is much easier now, although there's also more irrelevant stuff to weed through. In searching for "porcelain parlor ball," "ceramic ball" "ceramic sphere," and similar terms, I found a couple of articles on the Victorian pastime of "carpet ball," also known as parlor ball, carpet bowl, or parlor bowl. It was essentially indoor bocce, or like a game of pool on the ground without cues, using wooden or ceramic balls. Some places claim that it's Scottish, others Canadian -- my guess is that it was popular in the greater United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The versions I saw used ceramic balls that were kind of striped or plaid, which is pretty far from the swirly blue and white pattern on mine, but it seems plausible. My next stop was to look in history museum collections. These days, museum catalogs are readily available online, and often have more complete information than antiques catalogs. I used many of the same search terms I used in Google, and focused on museums around here and in places the game was popular. The Canadian Museum of History has several, and the National Museums of Scotland have at least a dozen, but with very bare catalog records. From the former, I learned that the average size of carpet balls is about five to eight centimeters in diameter -- mine fits right in that rage at about 7 cm, which makes it even more plausible that a carpet ball is the answer.


A somewhat dingy white sphere with thin black lines circling it in two directions, to form an irregular checked pattern. Beside it is a card with blocks of several colors.
A ceramic carpet ball in the Children's Museum of the Canadian Museum of History. The color strip beside it is commonly used in photographing museum collections, to compare the color to a known standard across different computer screens, photo prints, and aging objects.
This blog post was going to end with me getting more detail, hopefully corroborating my theory but possibly giving me new, different theories, by looking through books on antique ceramics and toys. I had an "adventure" with my library's delivery desk that ended up taking much longer than planned and only got me one of the books I had requested. That book, on toys, didn't mention carpet balls or anything else this is likely to be. Honestly, that's what a lot of history research is -- shots in the dark, and "this source probably won't have anything, but how sad would it be to miss out if it did have something?" If learning about this ball I bought was part of a bigger project, rather than a blog post (or it had really hooked into my curiosity), of course I'd keep at it, but in this case, I'm satisfied with the answer that it's probably for carpet bowls.

A tall, slender teapot or pitcher with an intricate floral design and some gold or copper around the edges.
An early example of blue and white porcelain from China, c. 1335
In the Musee Guimet, image by Wikipedia user World Imaging
I've picked up some small tidbits of knowledge on styles of ceramic glazing, mostly from visiting decorative arts museums. One such tidbit is that blue and white glazing isn't just two colors together, it's practically its own genre, one that originated in Asia. I looked online (and in that ill-fated library adventure) for resources on blue and white ceramics, and found that the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful. Blue and white glazing has its origins in Iraq but first became widespread in China in the 14th century, starting with glaze made from Persian cobalt. These ceramics became popular in the export market, and by the 16th century, European makers were imitating the blue and white styles, as well as attempting to replicate the delicate porcelain often just called "china." The famous blue-and-white pottery from Delft, in the Netherlands, came out of this trend. 

It's not surprising, then, that my blue and white ball has the feel of an Asian art style. I can't put my finger on what style that is, which may be due to my own lack of knowledge on the subject, or because it's a loose adaptation. The Wikipedia article doesn't say much past the 18th century, but a little more scouting around told me that asian-inspired blue and white ceramics were still popular in the Victorian era. With no other marks on the ball or information from the previous owner, I have no way to tell whether my purchase is from the era when carpet bowls was all the rage, or whether it's a recent reproduction. It doesn't matter to me. I have a new curio, and know a bit more about history.

P.S. If any readers have more information or informed guesses about my ball, please feel free to let me know! 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spoiled for other lighthouses

A tall white lighthouse and two one-room buildings at its base, against a blue sky.
Boston Light, plus the small "museum room" where you enter
and a cistern house that collects rainwater for the island.
Day 538

As I mentioned when I added “visit a lighthouse” to my blog list, I don’t remember the last time I toured a lighthouse but I remember telling my American Girl doll all about it when I got home, so it was probably a while ago. On Saturday, I played tourist in my own town and visited Boston Light. At $45 for an adult climbing the tower, it’s a steeper price than I’m used to for an afternoon’s adventure, but I liked it enough I’d consider going again (just not all the time, because $45). I had such a good time, I wonder whether other lighthouses will compare.


It’s not the lighthouse itself that’s so special. It is lovely, roughly 100 feet tall, with a second-order Fresnel lens, a particular style of lighthouse lens which is a pretty cool piece of engineering. What made it for me was that the outing had a bit of everything I like in a tourist or “tourist” experience: history, scenery, nature, and exploring. It’s the oldest light station in the country, and second-oldest standing lighthouse (it would be the oldest if the original hadn’t been burned by the British in 1776). I was there on a day when it had been foggy in the morning but the fog was lifting as we boated out there, and everything was perfectly picturesque. A staff member was there to point out the most interesting things in the tidepools on Little Brewster Island, the home of the lighthouse. I’m not afraid of heights, per se, but I felt a little challenged by the two ladders leading up to the upper levels of the lighthouse. It didn’t feel like we were there for very long, and I would have enjoyed a longer stay -- most of the 3.5 hour round trip was taken up with the ferry ride -- but I tend to be more thorough than many people when I visit a historic site.

I appreciated a lot of what the staff did to make it a good experience. I say “the staff” because they included people from a mix of organizations: Coast Guard officers, National Park Service rangers, and a volunteer from Friends of the Harbor Islands. The ferry ride included narration about the history of the islands and landmarks we were passing, which unfortunately was rather hard to hear unless you found the sweet spots on deck where the sound was good. On the way out to the island, it was mostly Native history, and on the way back, it was mostly US history. It was closer to a proportional divide, based on the length of time each set of cultures has been dominant in the area, than you normally get, which I liked. The staff was also good at making sure the visitors had the information we needed, which I’m sure was informed by dealing with lots of tourists. For example, they emphasized that there’s a public bathroom on board the ferry but not on the island. They also repeated that in going up the lighthouse, you can opt out of climbing at any point. One staffer said, “you won’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.” While it made the lighthouse sound a bit intimidating, it was also great that they made it so clear that a visitor who didn’t feel comfortable going to the top was not going to cause any problems. For me, determined to get to the top, I appreciated that once the stairs stopped and the ladders started, they had very clearly marked hand-holds at the top. 

Looking down a spiral staircase with black treads at the edge of white steps. A curved brick wall is at the left.
The spiral stairs weren't bad, but not quite as comfortable as the stairs at home.

They had us go up the tower (can I call a lighthouse a tower? Well, I’m a landlubber, I don’t have to be precise) in groups of 8 people at a time. We only had fifteen minutes, but the top of the lighthouse is actually very warm and small, so after the initial oohing and ahhing at the view and at the light itself, I was fine coming back down to explore the rest of the small island. This time, I went alone, but next summer, I’ll be back, and bringing friends.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The good, the bad, and the cringeworthy at the Commonwealth Museum

Day 533

I wish that I had visited the Commonwealth Museum when I first moved to Massachusetts. It’s attached to the state archives, and it has a nice overview of some parts of state political and economic history (and a bit of social history as they intersect with the former two). Their “treasures gallery,” which houses several of the most important political documents of the state’s early history, is very much worth seeing if you like to feel the power of the original.


A manuscript with a very ornate header beginning "William and Mary"
The 1691 charter for Massachusetts, one of the documents on display in the treasures gallery.
The museum, which is out at Columbia Point by UMass and the JFK Library and Museum, presents history from the early 17th through late 19th centuries in a handful of fairly well designed exhibits. (I don’t know where the 20th century went). The information is given in short, digestible pieces, and there’s an overall chronological flow but there’s no rigid order you need to read things in. Each exhibit has several interactive components -- my favorite was a “race to Boston” game depicting travel within Massachusetts in 1810 -- but when I visited, many of the interactives were broken or off, which is frustrating. There are plenty of historical documents incorporated in the exhibits, as is fitting for a museum at an archive. They did hit a pet peeve of mine, which is that the displays didn’t note which documents were replicas (which I think may have been all of them).


The museum is reasonably good, but I didn’t really like it. I felt like I had heard everything before, and I can normally enjoy and learn from museums even when I know a lot about the content area, but this one didn’t do it for me. It could have just been my mood that day, but more likely, I think I was very much not the target audience -- for one thing, already I know Massachusetts well. For another, I get the impression that the Commonwealth Museum is designed to receive a lot of school field trips, and I’m not in the demographic for that! Occasionally, the exhibit text felt a little like a textbook trying very hard to be engaging; the walls were sprinkled with thought questions about abstract versions of the subject being discussed, such as “Can you think of places in the world where cultural misunderstandings have led to conflict?”

A stone -- granite? -- building with the name Massachusetts Archives above the entrance.


It wouldn’t be appropriate to write about the Commonwealth Museum without addressing the way the museum addresses native history. The exhibit waffles between acknowledging the diversity of native nations and treating them as an interchangeable lump, and between acknowledging the European settlers’ drive for conquest and presenting any conflict as caused by neutral misunderstandings. For example, the exhibit text lists several different native peoples who live or once lived on the land that’s now Massachusetts. Then it goes on to say “Many Massachusetts locations retain Native names,” and list twenty place names with translations -- but it doesn’t say which language they are translated from, or which people created those names. More seriously, the exhibit text seems ambivalent on whether the English settlers were at fault for the wars between these settlers and native groups. In a section labeled “culture wars,” it does say “[King Philip’s] war’s deeper cause was the colonists’ relentless appetite for Native land.” The exhibit also seems determined to show that the colonizers did not set out to make war, but came here with ideas about settlement that were incompatible with local ideas. Not a bad or inaccurate premise on its own, when you’re looking specifically at English pilgrims and puritans of the early 17th century. However, the exhibit text takes this to a point that makes conflicts feel tragically inevitable, such as in the line, “In time, these cultural differences would lead to deadly conflict.” The “misunderstandings” question above is from the same section.

So, with that important caveat, I recommend the Commonwealth Museum if you’d like an overview of some local history and want to do that in a museum setting, or if you think the treasures gallery is going to be up your alley. Be prepared for some broken interactive elements, and to think critically about what you’re reading, especially if you bring kids.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Dissection on your coffee table


Day 520

I was first introduced to the book Great Discoveries in Medicine, edited by William and Helen Bynum, when I needed a good introductory overview of the history of heart surgery, and I found it in my local library.  I was pleased with its concise, useful summaries -- usually two to four pages a topic -- and its wealth of excellent images. When I saw it marked down at one of my favorite bookstores, I grabbed a copy, and was very happy with the purchase. The weird thing about this book, though, is that it's kind of a cross between a coffee table book you browse through, and the kind of book you read cover to cover. 
The cover of the book includes part of an oil painting of a 16th century German hospital.
I'm someone who likes to carry a book I'm reading around with me a lot. If I'm going to be on the T (Boston subway) at all during my day, I want to have a book. I should probably eventually get an e-reader for the convenience of it, although I'd never give up paper books entirely because I enjoy their physical qualities. I don't even mind that my books sometimes get a little beat up because they're thrown in a shoulder bag so often. These habits made reading Great Discoveries in Medicine rather hard. It's 8 inches wide, 10 inches tall, and almost 3.5 pounds -- so, larger than a late-series Harry Potter or Game of Thrones hardback. The 350 pages are sturdy and glossy, perfect for carrying high-quality images from throughout the history of medicine, but they weigh it down. Because of all this, (and the list price of $45), it seems designed to be a coffee table book.
A brightly-colored image including three people cutting into a dead body on a table, with a crowd surrounding them.
A 15th-century illustration of an autopsy.

On the other hand, it's kind of involved for a coffee table book. While its 70 entries work independently from one another, and you could absolutely pick it up and choose one at random (or based on your curiosity about one of the images), the topics really beg to be read with some attention. You wouldn't want to pick it up and read just the sub-section "From the internal secretion theory to endocrinology," because you wouldn't get much out of it without the rest of the article "Hormones." Or at least, I wouldn't. I found myself reading one or two articles with my morning cup of tea on the weekends, which was a good way to explore the book at a leisurely pace. 


I don't even know how to describe this image. an illustration of a firey clown chasing off allegorical representations of smallpox, cholera, and the like.
Advertisement for papier d'armenie, a late 19th century product that purported to disinfect the air in a room.

The actual content of the book is really good, although I have some quibbles. The articles are organized into large thematic chapters, such as epidemics, the evolution of basic understanding of health and disease, surgery, and so on. Within those chapters, the content is roughly chronological, so reading them in sequence, I could feel a progression happening. The choice of topics is great, including medical concepts which touch us every day (pencillin, the thermometer) and those which feel obscure now but are essential to medical knowledge (changing understandings of equilibrium in human biology). However, the book is a little overly focused on the West -- not just Western-style medicine, but on patients and populations in the West, and the rest of the world is mostly relegated to the articles on ancient and medieval history. Sometimes the complicated social history of a medical topic is very well-addressed, and other times the book glosses over things it really shouldn't, for example, changing attitudes towards ability and disability. The editing in the multi-author book is a bit uneven as well. Is the subheading of an article a pithy comment on the topic, or the only place an essential acronym is spelled out? 


Image is of a complex structure made of wire and colored balls, on a paper and wood background.
Dorothy Hodgkin's model of a penicillin molecule, one of the first uses of computing in x-ray crystallography. 

Overall, I recommend Great Discoveries in Medicine to anyone who is curious about medical history, as long as you don't mind the format, and recognize that it's not quite as comprehensive as it looks. It's written with a general audience in mind, and is an engaging read. Once in a while it gets a bit gruesome, as medical history is wont to do. I imagine it coming with the warning tagline used by the medical history / humor podcast Sawbones: "Don't drill a hole in your head!"