Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates by David Wootton - review by Anthony Daniels

Anthony Daniels

Asclepius Would Balk

Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates


Oxford University Press 320pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

How should the history of medicine be written? As the story of the ascent from ignorance and impotence in the face of disease to knowledge and mastery of curative techniques? Or as the story of how doctors actually practised through the ages, and how their patients reacted to their ministrations? Doctors generally prefer the former; social historians the latter.

This relatively brief history takes a different view. Professor Wootton believes in the idea of progress, unlike many non-medical historians of medicine, but he draws attention to a puzzle that Whig historians of medicine have overlooked, or perhaps preferred to overlook: namely, why did it take so long for genuine progress, of the sort that conferred on doctors the power to cure patients, to take place? According to the author, medicine changed decisively with the adoption of the germ theory of disease, at the time of Lister and Pasteur: before then, it was still essentially stuck in the Hippocratic age. Prior to the germ theory, all medical history is really medical pre-history.

This is an unorthodox and stimulating view. The orthodox, or at any rate more usual, view is that men such as Vesalius, who produced the first recognisably modern and accurate textbook of anatomy, and Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, were among the founding fathers of modern medicine.

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