Capsule version of the late Porter’s hefty and masterly medical history, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1998), still chock-full of astonishing facts and fascinating illustrations.
While his earlier work was aimed primarily at students of medicine, like those who attended his lectures at University College London, Porter trimmed this one for the general reader before his death in 2002. His subject is Western medicine, and he begins by looking at how the diseases that afflict humanity have changed from the days of prehistoric hunter-gatherers through the rise of agricultural settlements and great cities to the Industrial Revolution and the present era of global trade. Next, he surveys healing practices from the magic of tribal shamans through the Hippocratic doctors of ancient Greece to modern-day specialists. An Olympian researcher and entertaining storyteller, Porter reveals how investigation of the body itself changed thinking about disease and laid the foundations for 19th-century clinical medicine, then examines that century’s organized laboratory investigations, which led to the development of modern biomedical sciences and the pharmaceutical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Surgery, at one time performed by barbers without anesthesia, gets a separate chapter that traces its development from crude amputations to organ transplants. Porter shows hospitals evolving from charitable institutions providing the poor with refuge and care to hubs of modern medicine and the power bases of a medical elite. Along the way, we meet Iri, Keeper of the Royal Rectum in ancient Egypt, examine a diagram of the first wooden stethoscope, and learn how William Harvey worked out the circulation of blood. In conclusion, Porter notes that expectations of what modern medicine can achieve have grown alongside dissatisfaction with the impersonal, systematized delivery of health care services. Whatever the 21st century holds for medicine, he assures us, it will be different from the past.
Surprisingly light and lively, for anyone interested in discovering how the healing arts became a science and a business. (38 b&w illustrations)