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A historical compendium

This is a history by the publisher of illustrated books, on quality paper, containing 288 pages with an excellent cover, abundant quotations, and innumerable colour and black/white illustrations.  

It does not live up to its subtitle, since there are several ‘missing’ medical subjects, including psychiatry (scantily covered), family medicine (hardly mentioned) and paediatric practice and the care of children (notable by its absence).  I don’t know the medical advisors and consultants, but they include a cardiopulmonary specialist, a psychiatrist, a dentist, a pharmacologist and an ENT specialist. In some ways, the content of this worthy book relates to current Irish medical school clinical curricula, which provide an all-too-brief six-to-eight weeks for paediatrics, psychiatry and obstetrics, and infinitely more time to medicine and surgery.

The book, mostly excellent apart from the above cavils, consists of two-page histories of various topics with quotations, superb illustrations, simple diagrams and easy-to-read narratives. The book is broken into five parts:

1)          Ancient wisdom to 700 CE

2)          Revival and renaissance, 700-1800

3)          Science takes charge, 1800-1900

4)          Era of specialisation,  1900-1960

5) Promises old and new, 1960-now

Some 120 headline subjects are covered from early Chinese and Greek medicine, to homeopathy, the modern hospital, childbed or puerperal fever, all the historic killers of infants and adults — black death, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, polio, etc — as well as Ebola virus and HIV/AIDS.

Surgery is well covered, with sections on early surgery, Roman surgical tools, barber surgeons, repair and reconstruction, anaesthetics, minimally-invasive surgery, the first heart transplant, implants and prostheses, robotic surgery, and more. 

The illustrations are to be commended and are taken from a wide variety of sources, including Getty Images, Wellcome Images, Science Photo Library, Dorling Kindersley, Bridgeman Images, et al.  They are beautifully reproduced and mostly a joy to behold.  The early medical timelines from 3000 BCE to 400 CE and in other arbitrary medicine eras are well tabulated and documented.

For whom is this book intended? Well, for all medical professionals, a health-inquisitive public, and for those who enjoy and appreciate consummate illustrations. Historians will probably find the text and content of most items too short and superficial. This excellent text is certainly worth consideration as a present for a fellow medical colleague, medical students, amateur medical historians and clinical lecturers (who will love the illustrations).

A knowledge of history is imperative for all doctors, but is taught in bits by pathologists, psychologists, microbiologists, surgeons, physicians and in public health medicine. Roosevelt probably did not have polio, but rather Guillain-Barre Syndrome.  The last big polio outbreak in Ireland occurred in Cork in the mid-1950s. European explorers (Bligh et al) brought measles to Tahiti and decimated the population there. Tuberculosis in Ireland pre-1950 caused many more deaths than HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Ebola remains infinitely less serious today in Africa than mosquito-borne malaria. The names of Pasteur, Koch, von Behring, Salk, Sabin, Semmelweis, Lister, Virchow and many more need to be known by all medical students.  John Snow, Edward Jenner, Laennec, Graves, Corrigan and Maudsley need to be remembered and regarded.

This is a scholarly, eminently presentable, well-packaged and presented text on the history of medicine. If there is another edition, I hope more coverage of children, childbirth, paediatrics, obstetrics, psychiatry and family practice will be included. In conclusion, 9/10 for pictures and presentation, 9/10 for brief histories, 9/10 for glossary and index (as a Christian, I was taught that ‘nothing human can be perfect’).

Finally, great value for money.

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