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!"

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