Books on the history of medicine
July 3, 2010 5:47 AM   Subscribe

Books on the history of medicine - looking for recommendations

Either wide ranging overviews or engaging books on a single topic - humours, Islamic medicine, whatever.

I have just finished a short unit on the history of medicine and am now looking for a couple of really engaging books that will help me decide whether my interest is a flash in a pan, or whether I should sign up to study this for a year.
posted by fire&wings to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I enjoyed Oshinsky's book on polio and the race for the vaccine.
posted by BundleOfHers at 6:15 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: It's been mentioned in other threads, but The Great Influenza is a fantastic read.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:17 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: The Barry and Oshinsky books are both good, but they fall more on the "popular" end of the historical spectrum. If you want to test the waters of more scholarly/academic histories, consider some of these:

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind is a good overview by the late Roy Porter, arguably the world's leading historian of medicine.

Keith Wailoo's Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health and Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America are both excellent histories by an important younger historian.

Allan Brandt's The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America is a great recent overview of the medicine and epidemiology of tobacco.

You might also look into the work of Charles Rosenberg, the most senior historian of American medicine.
posted by googly at 6:31 AM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mary Roach wrote some very entertaining books about some taboo subjects medicine has had, or is having, to deal with. Her book on corpses, called Stiff, has the most pure medical history in it. But Spooks, and Bonk, that deals with sex, dwell in recent past with its many misconceptions as well.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:33 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: Guido Majno's The Healing Hand is great.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:38 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: I loved Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On about the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
posted by marsha56 at 6:48 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: Rebecca Skloot's new book--'The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' is a great popular-aimed read, and is also a very good scope into contemporary issues you would cover in coursework on the history of medicine. Alice Dreger's book 'Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex' is another excellent read.

'The Knife Man' is yet another popular, well-reserached piece. Wendy Wells is the author.

Lifton's classic interviews with Nazi physicians, 'The Nazi Doctors,' is worth the difficulty of the material. One interesting aspect now is that twenty years later we can now begin to contextualize Lifton's approach to the material: it is a secondary source on medical experimentation during the Holocaust, and a primary source for examining how medical professionals/ethicists responded and analyzed the brutal abuses.

Mary Roach is great entertainment and a gifted writer--I lend copies of 'Stiff' out all the time--but she's not writiing strictly in a context of medical history, and definitely you will not be reading tomes like hers often. Shilts is an interesting popular work---even more interesting to historians of medicine is the uproar surrounding it. One example: the effects of labeling one man 'Patient Zero' without clearly delineating what that meant in the particular epidemiological context. Effectively, Patient Zero--for all his cavalier attitude as portrayed in the book*, and denialism, let's remember that people really didn't understand AIDS in the first place, and consider the basic lack of scientific/medical education in the general populace--became the projected proxy for all the anger and fear directed at gay men, and Shilts's book gave that fear a specific target within the target. 'See? Not only were there horrific academic/political shenanigans that delayed acknowledging and addressing the spread of HIV, it's not ALL gay men and drug addicts who were the cause of the early epidemic--it's THIS GUY AND THE BATHHOUSE GAYS LIKE HIM. Not OTHER gay men. Those gay men--like the transfusion victims--are victims.'

He may not even have realized that's what he was doing.

Most of my focus, unsurprisingly, is on anatomy, the dead, and how the branches of medicine and science deal with education and experimentation. 'Death, Dissection and the Destitute' by Ruth Richardson is well-written. I could really list books all day.

*let's not get into the movie. AIDS-o-tainment of the early-to-mid-nineties was an interest of mine at the time, because it was everywhere. It evolved/expanded into the coverage of hemorrhagic fevers/'Coming Plague'** narratives

**This book is interesting in context. It is also inaccurate in at least one major regard, even if you consider the medical knowledge/medical journalism of the time. The John Snow pump handle story is a myth. I know this, because I know people who wrote a huge, massively-researched book on John Snow and cholera. It is a stand-out piece of scholarship, based on decades of work. I was livid to see a popular version of the history of cholera show up within two years of its publication that barely acknowledged the Snow group's work. If I ever meet that journalist, he is one of the few people I will seriously consider punching in the face.

In fact, if you're interested in cholera history, MeMail me, and I can give you a list of strong primary and secondary sources.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:03 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: A couple of good books on the development of open heart surgery are King of Hearts, about the very first operations using cardiopulmonary bypass; and Cooley (now out of print it looks like but still widely available) about Denton Cooley and his rivalry with Michael DeBakey starting in the 1950s. Ether Day is a good book about the discovery of anesthesia, although it tends to give Crawford Long short shrift. I read a lot of these kind of books but tend to be kind of picky about what I like, so I will try to come up with more suggestions. There are some good ones above as well.
posted by TedW at 8:14 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: The Knife Man is a fascinating look at a man involved in the early days of surgery.
posted by dorey_oh at 9:52 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: Seconding Roy Porter's Greatest Benefit to Mankind.

My sister is a social and medical historian; she wrote Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons on the beginning of modern obstetrics in Britain in the early 18th century. I'm going to see her over the weekend, so I'll ask her for a list of her favorites to recommend to someone starting to explore the field.
posted by scody at 11:24 AM on July 3, 2010

Best answer: A Calculus of Suffering is great. Looks at history of anesthesia, how pain was viewed by medical establishment in 1800s US. Closer to a textbook than general interest, but excellent. Should be able to find it in a university or hospital library.
posted by variella at 11:25 AM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been meaning to read Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine for awhile. I haven't read it, but I heard an interview with the author on an NPR program a few years ago and it sounded like a fascinating read.
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:07 PM on July 3, 2010

Response by poster: Great variety of titles here, thanks. All look fascinating, which I guess already confirms my interest!
posted by fire&wings at 9:09 AM on July 4, 2010

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