"The Medical Book" is Clifford A. Pickover's latest in a series of colorfully illustrated books that highlight 250 milestones in the history of a specific body of knowledge. The first of three was The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics (Sterling Milestones), which won the BSHM Neumann Prize and was soon followed by The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics (Sterling Milestones), the second in what is now a trilogy. Each book is identical in size, shape, scope, and format, but they all contain the essence of their own unique and separate field of study.
"The Medical Book" begins with the very first milestone in medicine (circa 10,000 B.C.) with the "Witch Doctor" on page 16. One would have assumed that shamans, medicine men, etc. were the genesis of the prehistoric healing arts, and this seems to be the case. They were the earliest practitioners to utilize the "Placebo Effect" (page 404). And one can only hope that Stone Age witch doctors were more conscientious than the jokers who concocted a famous potion in the U.S. (circa 1890) known as Hamlin's Wizard Oil (page 294). This alleged cure-all contained alcohol, camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves, and turpentine. Fortunately, Congress put a stop to "Patent Medicines" with mysterious and unlisted ingredients with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and today all medications are rigorously tested, labeled, and regulated before they are sold to the public, unless, of course, you buy them on the Internet.
I only mention Hamlin's Wizard Oil in connection with witch doctors because the history of medicine is bizarre - so much so that it has often resembled a freak show in a carnival or a sci-fi horror movie. Some of this may be due to the sheer number of unusual and inexplicable maladies that have afflicted humans over the centuries, which forced doctors to use their imagination and creativity in peculiar and even desperate ways. Yet even as far back as 3000 B.C. sutures were being successfully applied to close wounds (page 22) and eye surgery was performed as early as 600 B.C. (page 36). Medicine has also had its great humanists (Hippocrates - page 40) and innovators (Galen - page 50) as well as pioneers in surgical technique (William Stewart Halsted - page 280). It has also had more than its share of charlatans, quacks, and butchers, but over the millenniums the human species has been driven to develop medical science and technology to its current state out of sheer necessity. And today we possess capabilities that Hippocrates and Galen would regard as unimaginable wonders. It's almost as if medical miracles have become routine.
To an ever increasing extent, this has become our modern problem. We, or our loved ones, emerge from ICUs or the operating rooms of hospitals around the U.S. as if assembly line cures and recoveries are an every day occurrence. Others simply take prescribed medications and live year after year with death or disability literally knocking at their door. But because we have transcended untimely death, disability, or disfigurement to such a degree, we face entirely new challenges. One, of course is: How do we pay for these modern marvels of medicine? Another is: How can we make informed decisions when faced with life and death situations at the doctor's office or in the hospital?
Of course, those questions will have to be answered at some point in our future, whether we like it or not. And to do it right we will need reliable and up to date knowledge. The old adage that "Knowledge is power" is still true and never more so than in today's so-called "Information Age." We are flooded with misinformation and what amounts to propaganda on a daily basis via the Internet, or, through specious advertisements in all aspects of the mass media. Consequently, discussions of healthcare have become increasingly acrimonious around the water cooler due to the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance that afflicts our Reason.
"The Medical Book" can help dispel those demons of cognitive dissonance. It is a compelling digest of medical history that provides much needed clarity and cutting edge understanding of a complex field, as well as the science behind it, and at a pivotal moment in its history. Carefully written explanations and conscientiously selected illustrations will enlighten and inform the discerning mind as to the best, and worse, practices of medicine throughout the ages. In that sense, it is a history book about our future.
We've come a long way since witch doctors and Hamlin's Wizard Oil. Let's keep up the good work. Hippocrates and Galen would expect no less from us.