The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine Hardcover – Sep 4 2012
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"The writing is lively and the topics are varied . . . [Pickover] achieves his goals, and his brevity and breezy style should appeal to readers used to accessing information quickly on the Internet but who are still interested in picking up a book.” --Library Journal
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There is a progression in the scope of the subject matter covered in each of the three books. The Math Book, which is first in the series, covers a universe of abstract mathematical constructs while only occasionally touching on the physical world, e.g., the entry on the Bedsheet Problem. The Physics Book deals with the reality of space and time from the very large to the very small, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with the death of our Universe. The Medical Book takes us on a more personal journey. It starts with investigations of human anatomy, progresses through the discovery of the disease carriers, and eventually takes us on an exploration of the ever smaller: cells, bacteria, viruses, and DNA.
Pickover's genius lies in his ability to combine scientific explanation with thought-provoking images. My strategy for the Medical Book was to page through the illustrations and then to go to the written explanations. Among my favorite illustrations are the photographs: a Roman sewage system, 600 BC; a flea, representative of objects observed by Robert Hooke using his compound microscope, 1665; Mendel's pea plants, 1865; and a saber-toothed cat fossil illustrating PCR, 1963. Some of the connections between subject matter and illustrations show a certain leap of inspiration on the part of the author, who holds over one hundred United States patents according to the book jacket.
As a scientist, I could not help but notice a sub-theme running through the book. That is the role played by science, engineering, chemistry, and physics in the development of medical practice. Some specific examples that we take for granted today include the previously mentioned Roman-invented sewage system, clean water supply, the discovery of antibiotics, medical x-rays, PET, CAT, and MRI scanning.
This new entry in Pickover's scientific milestones trilogy is impressive. It goes well with the previous Math Book and Physics Book. If you like one, you will like the other two.
"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.
What sets "The Medical Book" apart from the other two, and from others in its class, is that Dr. Pickover selects entries that show not only how the technical field has advanced, as his subtitle states, "From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons," but also how fundamental knowledge of the body has transformed to evolve medicine from a craft of reputation to a practice building on a scientific understanding of the body.
We're left with page after page of beautiful images that stoke the imagination. Dr. Pickover obviously loves to teach on each of the mysteries he presents, first visually, as shown by the pictures he carefully selects, and then masterfully and concisely, matching each with a single page explanation. Even the seemingly simple story of the discovery of vitamins provokes excitement with stories from the sea and scurvy matched with vivid color micrographs of vitamin C crystals.
This book puts the work and efforts of doctors, nurses, medical students, and all health care professionals in an appropriately deep and meaningful context. It's the perfect source for those who want to become oriented not only to the practice, but to the history and future of medicine. We should all look forward to the continuing positive trajectory Dr. Pickover has laid out with each new entrant into the medical field.
As a side-note, I have already impressed friends and family with knowledge I have gained from reading this book.