Anthony Daniels

Doctor, Doctor

Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea and Our Difficulty Swallowing It

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These two books look at medicine down opposite ends of the telescope. The second tells us what it is like to be a doctor in modern conditions; the first reminds us just how recent a phenomenon in history is progress in medicine, at least from the point of view of tangible benefits to the patient.

Druin Burch’s history of medicine is a Whig interpretation with a difference. The author is himself a doctor and can therefore scarcely deny the fact of progress. At the beginning of his book he rightly takes to task previous, fashionable historians of medicine such as the late Roy Porter, who would use ironising quotation marks when he wrote of medicine that ‘worked’. The purpose of the irony was to question whether there is anything to be chosen between modern Western medicine and, say, the activities of a Siberian shaman, thus exhibiting the supposedly laudable open-mindedness of the enquirer. But can there be any rational doubt that thyroxine relieves myxoedema, that yellow fever vaccine protects against yellow fever, that insulin prolongs life enormously in juvenile diabetes, and that throwing the bones fails substantially to do any of these?

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