The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

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9780393046342: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

In a rare blend of erudition and entertainment, Roy Porter charts the revolutionary history of medicine, our most beneficial science. Throughout history medicine has advanced ever faster, and with it a capacity not just to overcome sickness, but to transform the nature of life itself. From the diseases of the hunter-gatherers to today's threat of AIDS and ebola, from the clearly defined conviction of the Hippocratic oath to the muddy ethical dilemmas of modern-day medicine, this book affords us an opportunity as never before to assess the culture and science of medicine and its costs and benefits to mankind. Porter explores medicine's evolution against the backdrop of the wider religious, scientific, philosophical, and political beliefs of the culture in which it develops, and shows how our need to understand where diseases come from and what we can do to control them has--perhaps above all else--inspired developments in medicine through the ages. Along the way the book offers up a treasure trove of historical surprises, such as an ancient Egyptian treatment for incipient baldness, a mysterious epidemic that devastated Athens and brought an end to its domination, and the role of the lemon in defeating Napoleon. This book promises to be the standard single-volume work on its subject for years to come.

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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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