Companion to a History Channel miniseries, a slightly idiosyncratic collection of 20 short pieces focusing on men and women who made noteworthy contributions to medical knowledge.
Fenster (Ether Day, 2001, etc.) provides the necessary context for understanding the significance of her subjects’ accomplishments in a readable, undemanding fashion. With descriptions of their physical appearance, personality quirks, and domestic tribulations, she makes every effort to bring these people to life and to set them in their time and place. She has grouped her pieces into five categories: understanding the body, germ theory, magic bullets, the mind, and surgery. The first section opens with an informative piece on 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius and includes William Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays; Werner Forssmann, developer of the cardiac catheter; and Ian Wilmer, credited with cloning Dolly. William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, would seem to belong here, but he turns up later in the section on surgery, following a piece on early experiments in blood transfusion. The section on germ theory, which features Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Ignaz Semmelweis, and Robert Koch (but not Louis Pasteur), also and rather startlingly profiles Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.” Fenster doesn’t provide an introduction explaining either her choices or their arrangement, indicating perhaps that the miniseries dictated them. Possibly the producers felt more women were needed; this would account for the selection of Lady Mary Montague, who figured prominently in the promotion of smallpox inoculation, rather than Edward Jenner, the doctor who discovered the vaccine. The hyperbole of the subtitle may also be no fault of the author’s.
Suitable for filling in unavoidable gaps in a TV presentation, but fails as a stand-alone.