The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

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9780002151733: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

Medicine advances ever faster, and with it not just a capacity to overcome sickness, but to transform the very nature of life. Starting in ancient antiquity, this text charts how this health revolution came about and how life for human beings in the West has ceased, in Hobbes' memorable phrase, to be "nasty, brutish and short." Porter plots the growth of medical specialisms - pharmacology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, bacteriology - and the institutions of medicine - the hospital and asylum - to show how medical advances have often created as many problems as they have solved. The book also shows how the ancient Egyptians treated incipient baldness with a mixture of hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, goose, snake and ibex fat; how a mystery epidemic devastated ancient Athens and brought to an end the domination of that great city; and how lemons did as much as Nelson to defeat Napolean.

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Review:

Samuel Johnson once called the medical profession "the greatest benefit to mankind." In the 20th century, the quality of that benefit has improved more and more rapidly than at any other comparable time in history. With all the capabilities of modern medicine's practicioners, however, we as a people are as worried about our health as ever.

Roy Porter, a social historian of medicine the London's Wellcome Institute, has written an dauntingly thick history of how medical thinking and practice has risen to the challenges of disease through the centuries. But delve into its pages, and you'll find one marvelous bit of history after another. The obvious highlights are touched upon--Hippocrates introduces his oath, Pasteur homogenizes, Jonas Salk produces the polio vaccine, and so on--but there's also Dr. Francis Willis's curing of The Madness of King George, W. T. G. Morton's hucksterish use of ether in surgery, and research on digestion conducted using a man with a stomach fistula (if you don't know what that means, you may not want to know). Porter is straightforward about his deliberate focus on Western medical traditions, citing their predominant influence on global medicine, and with The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, he has produced a volume worthy of that tradition's legacy.

From the Publisher:

"The Greatest Benefit to Mankind" was shortlisted for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle General Nonfiction Award.

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