Physician Weissmann (The Doctor with Two Heads, 1990, etc.) takes on the role of social historian in this rather disjointed...


DEMOCRACY AND DNA: American Dreams and Medical Progress

Physician Weissmann (The Doctor with Two Heads, 1990, etc.) takes on the role of social historian in this rather disjointed exploration of the philosophical roots of molecular biology. As Weissmann sees it, those roots lie in meliorism, the belief that when reason is applied to human actions, the social order can be improved. Claiming as his model Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and relying heavily on quotes from the literature of the times, Weissmann offers a series of bookish essays that meander selectively through the meliorist tradition from the Flowering of New England to today's ""Flowering of DNA."" Katherine Lee Bates, social reformer and author of America the Beautiful, Dr. Holmes, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, editor and writer Margaret Fuller, and others, are seen as links in a chain leading from 19th-century abolitionists and sanitarians to today's molecular biologists. Parallels are drawn between New York City's Central Park and its new Bellevue Hospital: The park was created in the mid-19th century by the US Sanitary Commission, a group of reformist doctors, theologians, and laymen bent on preventing disease by bringing clean water, fresh air, and open space to the crowded city. The hospital was built in the 1970s by such modern-day meliorists as mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsay, and Dr. Lewis Thomas, committed to conquering disease and treating the poor. Weissmann has little patience for critics of meliorism or for defenders of homeopathy or other New Age remedies. Progress, he argues, has been made not by shamans but by scientific medicine fueled by the spirit of meliorist reform. In the end, the author asserts rather than demonstrates the influence of meliorism on those doing DNA research today. Weissmann labels Dr. Holmes's Breakfast Table essays ""the unstructured products of a magpie mind."" The same might be said of the present work, which, however, is not likely to establish its author's literary reputation.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1996


Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1995