Science writer Hellman (Beyond Your Senses, 1997) chronicles ten important medical advances with emphasis on the struggle and bitterness that accompanied each.
Beginning in the 17th century with William Harvey’s frustrating effort to persuade his colleagues that blood circulates, the narrative closes in the 1980s, relating the scandalous dispute between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier over who discovered the AIDS virus. Only one chapter concerns a genuine scientific feud (the lifetime quarrel between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin over the superiority of injectable versus oral polio vaccine); the others recount the noisy contention that accompanies a controversial new idea. All these ideas eventually triumphed, but the speed of their victory depended less on evidence than the personality of the scientist who discovered them. Pugnacious Louis Pasteur loved a fight and generally won by a knockout. Freud never convinced his enemies in the medical profession, who are still denouncing him; his triumph lay in convincing everyone else who mattered, so much so that Freudian analysis became an icon for 20th-century intellectuals. Hellman’s rather schematic history revels in heroes and villains, and he occasionally falls into the trap of portraying historical figures who were wrong as stupider or more narrow-minded than those who were right, so sophisticated readers should look elsewhere. Yet the author avoids most clichés of popular science writing and has clearly read every secondary source. He often reviews works of other historians to illustrate how opinion has changed over the years, pointing out that even Pasteur has been charged with cooking his results and that feminists accuse James Watson and Francis Crick not only of looking down their noses at Rosalind Franklin but of stealing her data to make the model of the DNA molecule that won them the Nobel Prize.
A simple but solid introduction to the history of medicine.