The Alarming History of Medicine

January 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

The Alarming History of Medicine - front coverI’ve just finished reading The Alarming History of Medicine by Richard Gordon. Popping up as a suggestion when ordering some other books, I guess this line from the back cover sold it:

Using hilarious stories, based on actual facts, Richard Gordon shows that most of the monumental discoveries [in medicine] were originally accidents.

The Alarming History… is basically a history book of medicine written to inform, but primarily to entertain. In many ways it resembles Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It focuses as much on the personalities behind different medical breakthroughs as the breakthroughs themselves. Like who really discovered penicillin and who got the honor for it.Writing about the history of medicine by theme and not chronologically, Gordon manages to get some good points across. Especially how religion, social hierarchy and politics has held back medical research and hindered the implementing of new discoveries.

But the most prominent theme in this book can be found in this line about James Lind (1716-94) and the discovery that lemon and lime juice cured scurvy:

He had found the specific remedy , with no notion how it worked, to a disease for which nobody remotely knew the reason.

Some of the greatest advances in medicine were discovered not knowing what caused the problem, and why the measure worked. Lister introduced antisepsis knowing nothing about bacteria.

I wouldn’t recommend The Alarming History… as a first book about medical history, but it’s a very entertaining and interesting supplement to other books, offering a critical and often sarcastic view on much celebrated discoveries and events in the history of medicine.

It will remind you, as Voltaire put it, that:

(…) doctors pour drugs of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, into human beings of which they know nothing.

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§ 2 Responses to The Alarming History of Medicine

  • Heather says:

    Hi! I got the link to your blog through Short List – very interesting stuff! I was wondering: I’ve always been interested in medical history (The Alarming History is in my wish list. :))…what WOULD be a good first book about medical history?

    Again, cool job you have!


  • Øystein says:

    I would actually recommend a radio series, the BBC’s “The Making of Modern Medicine”, which I’ve written about here. A very interesting and entertaining introduction. It’s available through the iTunes Store.

    If you want to read, a good place to start is Roy Porter’s “Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine”, which is sort of a distilled version of his more comprehensive works.

    Or if you like to learn about the history of medicine by way of surgery, I would recommend Richard Hollingham’s “Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery”. A basic introduction, but a very good read.

    “Blood and Guts” seems to be a popular title ;)

    Thanks for reading my blog!

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