New Book Review! Doctors, the Biography of Medicine
Book Review: Doctors, the
Biography of Medicine
William J. Yost, MD FACP | Member of AIAMC Programming Committee
“The history of medicine is, in fact, the history of humanity itself, with its ups and downs, its brave aspirations after truth and finality, its pathetic failures.” … Fielding Garrison, 1913
I must confess that I have long had a particular fascination with the history of science, and with medicine in particular. I believe that to truly understand the discipline we practice and teach to our learners we should appreciate the context and history of that discipline – in short, how we got here.
In his book Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, Sherwin Nuland, MD - a celebrated surgeon, medical educator and prolific author - does precisely that. The scope is broad. He begins with Hippocrates; the arguably apocryphal figure widely considered the “Father of Medicine.” He visits other historical figures through the ages through whom we can see and understand the challenges, the frustrations, and the often-revolutionary advances made in medicine and surgery. Doctors concludes with Helen Taussig and her co-invention of the revolutionary surgical procedure that enabled “blue babies” to survive.
The book is an ambitious project
in scope and well worth the reader’s time. Through Nuland’s work (also
available as an audio book), one gains an appreciation for the startling
achievements of men and women through the centuries, advances that relieved
suffering and improved the human condition. Examples?
chapter is devoted to William Harvey
and his discovery of the circulation of blood (a discovery, incidentally, that
set Galen’s ideas and authority upside-down).
Here Nuland describes the application of what we now recognize as modern
science – careful observation, the generation of a hypothesis, and
experimentation with the measurement of results to support or deny the
hypothesis. Observation, logic, and experimentation.
o Rene Laennec is described in another
memorable chapter. Laennec was a French physician and musician whose extensive
practice included the ordinary people of Paris, and the inventor of the
stethoscope. As an internist - and as one who has made his living by the
stethoscope - Laennec has always been a particular favorite of mine. I often
mention him to my students and residents as we explore the mysteries and
subtleties of auscultation.
o William Stewart Halsted was another
particularly intriguing figure in the history of medicine. A deeply troubled genius, Halsted dedicated
himself to the relief of women’s suffering from breast cancer through his novel
approaches to their surgical cure, bringing some hope for cure to women
stricken with a disease previously considered incurable. His contributions to
medicine, surgery and medical education were many; the story of his life and
personality will fascinate you.
o And finally, there is Helen Taussig, the founder of pediatric cardiology and co-inventor of the life-saving surgery that bears her name. Nuland brings this brilliant woman to life and describes her unceasing efforts to overcome discrimination in a virtually entirely male profession, her devoted care of her patients, and, in a very real sense, the perfect role model of the subspecialist who cares for the whole patient. I found it fascinating that Taussig, left somewhat deaf by whooping cough as a child, developed such acuity in her senses of observation and touch that she could diagnose the cardiac abnormality to a high degree of accuracy by just watching and feeling a child’s chest. She devoted her life to the care of “blue babies” and she changed the world.
There are, of course, others throughout history and throughout this book. You may find descriptions of Hunter and Pare, Semmelweis and Lister, to be even more compelling than those I’ve mentioned. However, I can assure you of one thing – if you have any interest in the history of medicine or humanity, you’ll find this book well worth your time, even compelling reading.
Sherwin Nuland was a respected clinician, educator, and medical historian. On the faculty at Yale University, he died in 2014. During his career, he taught surgery, bioethics and medical history at Yale University, was the Literary (Scientific) Editor of Connecticut Medicine and Associate Editor of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences and a TED talk speaker including one on How Electroshock Therapy Changed Me.
Brief Bio: Dr. Yost is
Chief Academic Officer, DIO, and Senior Vice President of Medical Education and
Research at UnityPoint Health-Des Moines where he provides direction and
oversight of UME, GME and CME. As the DIO, he engages in clinical and
educational research and teaches clinical medicine and principles of quality
and patient safety. He is a long-time Iowan, getting his BS and DVM (Veterinary
Medicine) at Iowa State University before deciding to get his human medicine
degree (MD) at the University of Iowa. He completed his GME training in
Internal Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is a Fellow of the
American College of Physicians and continues to practice general internal