THE HEALERS by Henry Denker


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Dribbling sentiment, square-wheeled characters of absolute nobility, and puffs of historical personalities: those are the dubious attractions of this Denker clanker about a brace of married doctors, mainly in the US, 1848-1885. In spite of difficulties facing Jews in 19th-century Vienna, David Lilliendahl presses on to finish his medical studies with distinction; then, however, his participation in a student revolutionary-movement will send him to America. And, though armed with the knowledge he acquired while assisting the great medical pioneer Semmelweis (who found the cause of puerperal fever), David is also burdened with the dread of being called upon to perform surgery--a task at which, in an emergency, he has once failed. Meanwhile, New York WASP Mary Sinclair becomes one of the first students of the Philadelphia Female Medical School, then attends (as the only woman student) the École de MÉdecine of Paris. So, eventually, Mary and David will meet during a Manhattan anti-slavery riot--and soon are both appointed to Jews Hospital. They marry; Mary, in spite of her father's horror, is drawn to Judaism, converting: "The long and tragic history of a people ennobled by sacrifice and suffering began to affect her." When Civil War comes, David will serve in the Union Army in Virginia: he loses his fear of surgery in the midst of the under-supplied hospital camaraderie and a nightmare of death. (He even fraternizes with the enemy--when a Confederate Colonel surprises him with: "Bist du ein yid?") Reunited, and the parents of young Davey, Mary and David continue their fight for progressive medicine; in private and hospital practice they cope with cholera, diphtheria, and TB. And though Mary has a nervous breakdown when they lose son Davey, after the birth of Amos, to diphtheria, Dr. Abraham Jacobi comes to the rescue with good sense and dream analysis: Mary returns to her work, joining David in the crusades for pasteurized milk and sweatshop reform. . . and so on through the years. Denker (Outrage, The Actress, etc.) combines two tried-and-true commercial genres here: doctor heroics and Jewish-family history. Along with Semmelweis, he tosses in such guest-star giants as Lister, Koch, and Pasteur--who says: "I think we. . . are selected by God to make our personal human sacrifices on the altar of medical ignorance." But, while some readers will be drawn by the subject-matter appeal, they'll soon discover that--with little convincing period ambience, only a smidgin of real medical history, and dull, dull people--this is one doctor-novel that's generally anesthetic.
Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 1982
ISBN: 038067405X
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1982


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