Book Review: Maladies and Medicine by Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

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Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans and Sara Reed

Europe in the 1600s was a strange place to be. Science and empirical data were beginning to subsume old superstition. The invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world to human sight. Discoveries in physics, medicine, and other fields slowly brought Europe into the modern age. But for a time, superstition and science existed as awkward bedfellows. Doctors tried to balance the ancient medical theories of Galen and Hippocrates with new, scientifically gathered data. It is this awkward stage that is front and center in Maladies and Medicine.

This is a straight-up history book. While the authors certainly inject frivolity and humor into the book, this is meant more for the dedicated history buff, and not for the casual reader. Evans and Reed, while admitting to the books limitations in scope (it’s a big topic), include a vast amount of information, conveniently divvied up by disease. The authors also delve into the differences between medical doctors, surgeons, midwives and other practicing women, and the unofficial medical practitioners. Each has their own origin and medical views, and it is curious to see when they agree, disagree, and borrow from one another.

History buffs will find a lot of great information (and a lot of cringe-worthy knowledge) in this book. If you’re interested in medieval history or medical history, this book is a great addition to your TBR. However, if you’re looking for a similar book for a more casual reader, you should check out Quackery by Lydia Kang.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

“Heroic medicine” is well named. Prior to the advent of anesthetics, patients were awake and aware for surgical procedures. The pain and horror of feeling a surgeon cutting into your body is something we now associate with a nightmare. Going through asurgery was nearly as likely to kill you as not receiving treatment at all. With the discovery of ether, surgeons no longer had to restrict their operations to procedures which could be completed in minutes. With the field of surgery becoming ever more ambitious, post-surgical infections became the chief danger to patients. In a time before germ theory was accepted, opinions and practices used to treat or prevent infections (laudable pus, anyone?) varied widely, and with little success. In the 1860s, Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister set about trying to determine scientifically the causes of post-surgical infections, and how to best prevent these deadly conditions.

Lindsey Fitzharris gives us a great view of Victorian medical practice, and of the scientific and medical theories and traditions that made the prevention of nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections so difficult. The Butchering Art is both a history and a biography. The book earns a place next to The Knife Man by Wendy Moore (about contemporaneous surgeon John Hunter) and The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (about Dr. John Snow, who helped trace a cholera outbreak in London to a single water pump).

Any history buff interested in the history of medicine will enjoy this book. More casual readers will likely also find this book to be entertaining and accessible. Beware though, Fitzharris provides several very accurate and vivid descriptions of Victorian-era surgeries, so the book is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Rigor Mortis by Richard F. Harris


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Undermines Tomorrow’s Medicine by Richard F. Harris

It seems like every other week a new study hits the news: Red wine cures cancer, coffee is terrible for you, taking vitamins is crucial for good health, red wine might actually cause cancer, caffeine in small amount is good for you, vitamins are worthless. With this whirlpool of conflicting information coming rapid-fire into the public sphere, one could certainly forgive the average person if they stopped paying attention, or even started to doubt everything they hear from a scientific source.

In Rigor Mortis, former NPR science journalist Richard F. Harris seeks to illuminate the systemic problems which underlie this phenomenon. Especially in this political environment, such an undertaking is a double-edged sword. It would be too easy for someone to take the basic concept: that there are structural problems within the field of medical research, and leap wildly to the conclusion that science itself is deeply flawed. However, the current situation within the scientific community needs to be addressed. Improvement can only be achieved with honest admissions of fault, greater transparency, and dedication to change. In this regard, Harris’ book does the field more good than harm.

The current crisis has been labeled one of reproducability. Flawed research, lack of standardized methods, and inadequate analysis, combined with the chaos of working within living systems, result in a nigh-impossibility of one lab successfully reproducing the results of another. The causes of this are multifaceted; lack of training in laboratory and statistical methods, the dog-eat-dog nature of research funding, the press by Universities to “publish, publish, publish” with more regard to quantity of work than quality. Right now, it pays far better to be first to be right.

Harris’ book isn’t just a condemnation of the state of the field, he provides concrete adjustments and changes that can be made to improve the quality of research being done, and shares the stories of those within the field who are working towards those ends. The emphasis here is that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As more and more researchers begin to deal honestly with the flaws of their research and seek solutions, the benefits for medical research, and for doctors and patients, will be profound.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

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Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ By Giulia Enders

 

“The gut is our body’s most underrated organ. This is its inside story.”

Gut is a rollicking ride through the vast organ that is the human digestive system. Enders takes us through the whole thing from top to, er, bottom, and from inside to out.

The book is similar in tone to Mary Roach’s book: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, but where Roach excels at going into the kooky culture behind the science, Enders gives us the low down on the anatomy and physiology of our most ignored organ (appropriate, as she is–at the time of this writing–a medical student). We move through the structure of the various components of the digestive system, on to the structure of the nervous system which services the gut, and make a nice little stopover with the microbiome: the bacterial cells living in our gut that outnumber our or human cells by 9 to 1.

Enders has that rare and precious gift: she is able to impart knowledge in an engaging manner. Many, many nonfiction writers would kill for her delivery. The entire book is written in a wry, accessible tone, making Gut the most fun your going to have with your colon for quite a while. In addition, the book is cunningly (and humorously) illustrated (by Jill Enders) throughout, treating us to images of ballerinas toe dancing on slices of cake, babies diving through a sea of bacteria while being born, and the immune system fitting bad bacteria with little hats, among many, many others.

Gut gives us the best of science writing. You will learn quite a bit while perusing this book, but you won’t realize it right away. I’m almost sad that Enders is seeking a career in medicine, I hope she’ll still find time for her writing; the world needs more books this fun.