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The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Sep• 30•11

I recently finished reading a great book by William Bynum called The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction. The book does just what it says: provides a great introduction to the history of medicine.  It is concise and interesting throughout.  The contents are divided into six chapters:

  • Medicine at the bedside
  • Medicine in the library
  • Medicine in the hospital
  • Medicine in the community
  • Medicine in the laboratory
  • Medicine in the modern world.

This chart explains the differences between the first five kinds of medicine.

There are many interesting nuggets of information from this book and picking out a few is difficult.  I’ll settle for two which discuss the unintended consequences of the invention of anesthesia and antibiotics:

Giving surgeons more time to operate made conserving tissues easier, but the longer exposure of the open wounds to the air also increased the possibility of post-operative infection.  Consequently, anaesthesia enlarged the range of operations surgeons could perform, but not necessarily the changes of a patient’s surviving the ordeal.

The causative agents of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV have all developed resistance to many of their conventional treatments, complicating these major world diseases.  The hospital has not ’caused’ this phenomenon; human agency has.  But drug-resistant pathogens are now so common that modern hospitals sometimes lose their desired epithet, as ‘houses of healing,’ and revert to that old one, ‘gateways to death.’

Here is Amazon’s summary of the book:

Taking a thematic rather than strictly chronological approach, W.F. Bynum, explores the key turning points in the history of Western medicine-such as the first surgical procedures, the advent of hospitals, the introduction of anesthesia, X-Rays, vaccinations, and many other innovations, as well as the rise of experimental medicine. The book also explores Western medicine’s encounters with Chinese and Indian medicine, as well as nontraditional treatments such as homeopathy, chiropractic, and other alternative medicines.

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