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The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

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"To combine enormous knowledge with a delightful style and a highly idiosyncratic point of view is Roy Porter's special gift, and it makes [this] book . . . alive and fascinating and provocative on every page."—Oliver Sacks, M.D. Porter's charting of the history of medicine affords readers the opportunity as never before to assess its culture and science and its costs and b "To combine enormous knowledge with a delightful style and a highly idiosyncratic point of view is Roy Porter's special gift, and it makes [this] book . . . alive and fascinating and provocative on every page."—Oliver Sacks, M.D. Porter's charting of the history of medicine affords readers the opportunity as never before to assess its culture and science and its costs and benefits to humankind. "A splendid and thoroughly engrossing book."--"L.A. Times." of illustrations.


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"To combine enormous knowledge with a delightful style and a highly idiosyncratic point of view is Roy Porter's special gift, and it makes [this] book . . . alive and fascinating and provocative on every page."—Oliver Sacks, M.D. Porter's charting of the history of medicine affords readers the opportunity as never before to assess its culture and science and its costs and b "To combine enormous knowledge with a delightful style and a highly idiosyncratic point of view is Roy Porter's special gift, and it makes [this] book . . . alive and fascinating and provocative on every page."—Oliver Sacks, M.D. Porter's charting of the history of medicine affords readers the opportunity as never before to assess its culture and science and its costs and benefits to humankind. "A splendid and thoroughly engrossing book."--"L.A. Times." of illustrations.

30 review for The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    Smallpox patient, Bangladesh, 1973 The defects of this book are many, but it would hurt to give it less than four stars and, the avoidance of pain being one of Porter's main themes, I will stick to a suitably thematic rating. There are delights aplenty to be mined in this compendious history, and a myriad reasons, if you still needed any, to fall down on your knees and give thanks that we live in an age of anaesthetic and antibiotics. Things have certainly come a long way since – to pick an exampl Smallpox patient, Bangladesh, 1973 The defects of this book are many, but it would hurt to give it less than four stars and, the avoidance of pain being one of Porter's main themes, I will stick to a suitably thematic rating. There are delights aplenty to be mined in this compendious history, and a myriad reasons, if you still needed any, to fall down on your knees and give thanks that we live in an age of anaesthetic and antibiotics. Things have certainly come a long way since – to pick an example almost at random from the early pages – doctors were recommending crocodile-dung pessaries as a form of contraception, as they were in Pharaonic Egypt. (Presumably they worked on the principle that they were a serious mood-killer.) And in general, you're left with a strong impression of quite how slow and painstaking progress has been: every basic drug and vitamin pill today, every vaccination and course of antibiotics, is founded on a centuries-long, incremental advance in knowledge that often took several steps backwards for every shuffle forwards. In 1826, two Italians finally identify the pain-relieving element salicin in willow-bark; it's purified three years later by a French chemist; meanwhile, a Swiss pharmacist extracts a related substance from meadowsweet, and a German researcher uses it to obtain salicylic acid; Gerhardt works out its molecular structure in 1853, and Hoffmann finally synthesises it as acetylsalicylic acid which, in 1899, is renamed aspirin. Similar stories can be retailed for any other substance, and they give you an idea of the scale of knowledge that is being casually discarded by the sort of people who rail against "unnatural" chemicals. Porter is at his best when he slows down long enough to make these narratives clear. When he fails to do so, the book can rattle through names and dates at a bit of a gallop – the chapters devoted to non-Western forms of medicine in particular, while welcome, seem especially cursory. Luckily, Porter has a great flair for making the kind of quick, thumbnail biographies that a book like this depends on – take, for instance, this potted story of one of the pioneers of dental anaesthesia: In December 1844, the dentist Horace Wells (1815–48) went to a fair in Hartford, Connecticut, where ‘Professor’ Gardner Colton (1814–98) was giving an exhibition of ‘Exhilarating or Laughing Gas’. Curious whether it could be used for painless tooth extraction, Wells offered himself: Colton administered the gas while Dr John Riggs yanked out a molar. ‘A new era of tooth-pulling!’ Wells exclaimed, on coming round. Eager to exploit his breakthrough, he built a laughing-gas apparatus: a bellows with a tube stuck into the patient's mouth. Demonstrating it in the dentistry class of John C. Warren (1778–1856) at the Massachusetts General Hospital, he botched the procedure, however, and his patient suffered agony. Wells lost medical support, grew depressed, became addicted to chloroform and, after arrest in New York for hurling sulphuric acid at two prostitutes, committed suicide in jail. Well, that escalated quickly… Another theme that becomes clear is how far research is in advance of effective treatment. This is something we're familiar with today, when hardly a week seems to go by without another cancer breakthrough in mice or Alzheimer's regression in lab samples, yet seemingly without any practical results ever filtering through to humans in hospitals. Such has always been the case. Matthew Baillie was already complaining about it in the eighteenth century: ‘I know better perhaps than another man, from my knowledge of anatomy, how to discover disease, but when I have done so, I don't know better how to cure it.’ This sense of what Porter calls ‘medicine's Sisyphean strife’ is especially acute in the age of antibiotics, which can't be developed nearly as fast as bacteria can evolve immunity. Then again, before bacteria were understood, things were infinitely worse. Indeed before Joseph Lister introduced the idea of germ theory, sepsis was astonishingly prevalent. Doctors would waltz in off the street, chuck a bloody apron on over their clothes, and start operating, perhaps with a quick rinse of the hands if you were lucky. There are stories in here of doctors needing a plaster, and simply opening a drawer filled to the brim with plasters of every kind that had been used and reused on patients suffering from every imaginable disease, and then just put back in the drawer after use. As a consequence, surgery was insanely risky. ‘Every single one of the seventy amputations the aged Nélaton performed during the Commune (1871) resulted in death.’ The vast historical sweep offered by a book like this also allows you to see many familiar things in a new way. Nicholas Culpeper, for instance, whose Herbal sits on my shelves and whom I had always vaguely imagined to be a kind of staid proto-botanist, is here presented as part of a grand anarchic tradition of ‘Paracelsan iatrochemistry’, which was all about promoting the values of homespun wisdom against the hegemonic early equivalent of Big Pharma (namely, the College of Physicians). I also see that homoeopathy, with its stress on purity and minimal dosage, seems a lot less ridiculous in the context of the huge, almost unregulated cocktails of drugs that were being sloshed about when it was developed in the eighteenth century. As for the state of modern medicine, Porter (writing twenty years ago) is circumspect but downbeat. Medicine, he notes, ‘has bedded down with authority in the modern state’, and the huge advances in medical science have only shifted the focus from acute to chronic diseases. ‘Its triumphs are dissolving in disorientations.’ In the United States in particular, he is alarmed by the free-market capitalist approach: ‘Medical consumerism – like all sorts of consumerism, but more menacingly – is designed to be unsatisfying.’ And this is linked to a creeping pathologisation of normal life. The root of the trouble is structural. It is endemic to a system in which an expanding medical establishment, faced with a healthier population, is driven to medicalising normal events like menopause, converting risks into diseases, and treating trivial complaints with fancy procedures. Doctors and ‘consumers’ are becoming locked within a fantasy that everyone has something wrong with them, everyone and everything can be cured. Here we see again one of Porter's most admirable qualities – his focus on patients. This is not just a history of medical research, but a history also of the way doctors behave towards the public, and the relationships we have with our bodies and with our medical experts. Porter – presenting himself too as an expert – is well aware that being nice is not necessarily what people want. I detected a hint of approbation in his anecdote about the English surgeon John Abernethy, who was apparently in the habit of barking at fat ladies, ‘Madam, buy a skipping-rope’ – ‘yet,’ Porter notes slyly, ‘he was in demand.’

  2. 5 out of 5

    K.

    3.5 stars. So this was actually my textbook for a subject called Pox, Plagues and Pestilence in my third year of undergrad. And that subject was pretty stinking amazing, so I've hung onto this for the past 14 years with intentions of rereading it someday. So I finally did. I think a better subtitle for this would be "a medical history of Europe (but mostly the UK) and the US from 1750 to the late 90s". Because while there are one or two chapters at the beginning that deal with medicine in ancien 3.5 stars. So this was actually my textbook for a subject called Pox, Plagues and Pestilence in my third year of undergrad. And that subject was pretty stinking amazing, so I've hung onto this for the past 14 years with intentions of rereading it someday. So I finally did. I think a better subtitle for this would be "a medical history of Europe (but mostly the UK) and the US from 1750 to the late 90s". Because while there are one or two chapters at the beginning that deal with medicine in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Asia, the vast majority of the book focuses on the Western world and Western medicine. And really, probably half the book focuses on the 19th century. It's understandable, given that that's when huge medical advances took place. But I still feel like the subtitle is a liiiiiittle misleading. Anyway. It's hella long. But it's often fascinating. Definitely worth a look if you're interested in medical history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Watts

    As a history student I was once told by the lecturer “I always say everyone loves history, except when it’s about the past”. In a similar fashion it was recently put to me that if you take one of those great tomes that claims to be about ‘the history of the world’ and open it exactly halfway through you are probably already in the seventeenth century, at least. Even more so than other fields of history, this present-centrism is particularly the case of the history of Medicine. This book, whose m As a history student I was once told by the lecturer “I always say everyone loves history, except when it’s about the past”. In a similar fashion it was recently put to me that if you take one of those great tomes that claims to be about ‘the history of the world’ and open it exactly halfway through you are probably already in the seventeenth century, at least. Even more so than other fields of history, this present-centrism is particularly the case of the history of Medicine. This book, whose midway point is actually in the nineteenth century, is no exception. The general narrative goes from the great ignorance of medicine under Galenic/Confucian/Ayurvedic speculations where medical practices included bloodletting and mercury pills (this continued into 1920s!) and doctors did more harm than good, until science was finally was applied and medicine finally entered the modern age where it could make a real difference to people’s lives. No doubt there is great truth in that, but it reads the past too much in terms of the present, for one thing, and does not do what historians should do: Explain the past. It is to the author’s credit that he both tries to complicate this narrative and yet add some real flesh to it. The first third or so of the book deals with pre-modern medicine and includes sections on Chinese and Indian medicine, although the concentration of this part of the book is based on the development of Western Medicine (thankfully it also includes the role Arab scientists played in this). This is also a book that mostly views the history of medicine as through a series of key individuals with long chunks given over to Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Rhazes, Paracelsus, Vesalius, Descartes and Harvey among others, explaining their role and importance. But this does not just include major figures, every discovery of note gets mentioned, developments tracked with great detail, countless minor (and not so minor) figures get their paragraph or so noting their contribution. It is extremely thorough and at over 700 pages it should be. However it continues like this throughout the book and by the time it gets to the modern sections it can feel like a long list of forgotten names and notable achievements without much recourse to explanation, narrative or analysis. Great for a textbook, but at times lacking for a history book. But as I said a virtue of this book is its very thoroughness. Once it has done its tour of Ancient and Medieval global medicine for the first two hundred pages, it moves onto the renaissance and the development of science and modern medicine, from there it branches out into chapters on Medical Care, Public health, Third World and Colonial Medicine, Psychiatry (which is mentioned a fair bit throughout the book), Pasteur and Germ Theory, Research, Surgery, Medical Specialization, the Role of the State in Modern Medicine and Medicine and Society. That last chapter is especially interesting as it combines discussion of twentieth century medical history with its cultural effects, discussing the impact medicine and doctors (not always the same thing) have had on our various cultural conversations. Porter’s general tone might be described as justifiably cynical with a recognition of the limitations of contemporary medicine but also a recognition that real, very real progress has been made and this has had down to the intellectual and scientific shifts he has described. He is also aware that changes in medicine are not exclusive to medicine but have sociological consequences and consequences for how we view ourselves and humanity general. This book is at its best when it attempts intellectual history and tries to understand the frames and metaphor at which figures tried to tackle the problems of disease and death. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this or perhaps this would take a whole different book, he focus instead on the strings of events, the ‘how’ and ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. Also Porter has a tendency to use a bit too much sociological jargon without really defining it (like ‘the medical gaze’). Given this he does not really try to answer what I think are some of the big questions of medical history such as How did Galenism survive so long? Why are ancient medical systems obsessed with balances and equilibrium? Is Medical care really a palative to disease or was it basics such as better diet, economic expansion and clear water and air which drove the rise of life expectancy in the twentieth century? That is just listing a few. He does, however, spend time with topics which many other medical historians would not touch, such as the role of Alternative medicine and its history in the 19th and 20th centuries but his explanations of the ‘why’ are a bit generic. Perhaps I’m expressing disappointment at this not being book I would like to see. This primarily functions well as an introductory text rather than a deep piece of analysis. However, despite my criticisms I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic, especially if they are only a novice. It’s very thorough, it covers a lot of ground across several medical specialities and countries even (although it is rather Anglosphere-centric), and its judgements when it makes them are reasonable and backed up well with argument. Porter has a real feel for his subject and why it is important, even if sometimes it can feel like just ‘one damn thing after another’. As a reference book, I will certainly be looking at it again, it is a mine of information. For what it lacks, there is, no doubt, other material left to explore.

  4. 4 out of 5

    jzthompson

    Prehistory to just before the Renaissance (ish)- A bit of a rattle all things considered. Could have done with a bit more analysis and a bit less dusty listing of eminent persons. But generally a good, broad overview, in a clear style, with sympathies exactly where they should be. The chapters on Indian and Chinese medicine were a particular highlight. Renaissance - The Enlightenment. Porter really shifts the pace down here, taking more time to put changes in medicine into a proper social contex Prehistory to just before the Renaissance (ish)- A bit of a rattle all things considered. Could have done with a bit more analysis and a bit less dusty listing of eminent persons. But generally a good, broad overview, in a clear style, with sympathies exactly where they should be. The chapters on Indian and Chinese medicine were a particular highlight. Renaissance - The Enlightenment. Porter really shifts the pace down here, taking more time to put changes in medicine into a proper social context. It's a pretty challenging read at times, and still occasionally degenerates into a dizzying list of names, but very worthwhile. The thematic organisation of chapters will be v. useful as a reference. The 19th Century - Penicillin. We're on to the really good stuff here, as with the previous sections it can at times be a bit dizzying, and I've needed to take my time with it, but even more so than the 'enlightenment' section the focus is now firmly on historical context rather than endless lists of eminent physicians. Really good stuff. Practice Areas - Porter breaks off from the strict chronological order he's followed previously to discuss various areas in more depth. It's fair to say his thread to gets a little bit lost at times, and depending on your interests some bits will be more useful than others. I found the chapters on 'tropical medicine' and nutrition especially interesting. Medicine, State and Society and Medicine and the People- a bit of a mixed bag, on one hand, it's clearly where Porter's heart lay and contains his most passionate and interesting arguments. On the other hand, it's also where the book shows its age the most, and also where it starts to collapse under its own weight, bits and pieces from the thematic sections are repeated and the structure gets a bit lost. Overall Thoughts - A comprehensive single volume history of medicine was probably... brave... in the Yes, Minister sense, several times here I felt that Porter's structure and argument was getting lost amidst the wealth of detail. Particularly towards the end, as we moved away from strict linear progression through history towards treating development thematically, the tendency to repeat points covered earlier almost seemed to recognise that most people will find this more useful and enjoyable as a reference rather than a read. Taken in those terms though this has to count as a great success. The breadth and depth of scholarship on display is staggering, as is the humane vision of the role of medicine. The last couple of months with The Greatest Benefit to Mankind have often felt like a slog, but it's been an endlessly rewarding slog (if that's possible) and I hope I shall have many opportunities in the future to draw on the wealth of knowledge it contains.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    The author is a good writer and is extremely knowledgeable, but he doesn't tell a very interesting story. It felt like an endless parade of forgotten individuals and the forgotten books they wrote. I understand that medicine progressed in that way, i.e. lots of people building on each others' small discoveries, but it makes for a dull story. I'd have preferred to get to know a handful of truly major figures in medical history rather than have the author briefly touch on dozens and dozens of peop The author is a good writer and is extremely knowledgeable, but he doesn't tell a very interesting story. It felt like an endless parade of forgotten individuals and the forgotten books they wrote. I understand that medicine progressed in that way, i.e. lots of people building on each others' small discoveries, but it makes for a dull story. I'd have preferred to get to know a handful of truly major figures in medical history rather than have the author briefly touch on dozens and dozens of people.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I liked it, but I feel as if the author went too broad in his approach. As a "brief medical history of the world" it was scattered and thin. It held many interesting facts, but he didn't share anything revolutionary before the modern era, and the eastern additives felt like a footnote in comparison to his treatises on western medical practice. Perhaps he just tried to do too much in too few pages. I liked it, but I feel as if the author went too broad in his approach. As a "brief medical history of the world" it was scattered and thin. It held many interesting facts, but he didn't share anything revolutionary before the modern era, and the eastern additives felt like a footnote in comparison to his treatises on western medical practice. Perhaps he just tried to do too much in too few pages.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jerrod

    This encyclopedic work should be consumed along with other books in the rotation. This is pretty comprehensive, but mostly focuses on the development of Western/scientific medicine. You will get a lot of info about fads along with actual scientific progress. One question I have: why feces were such a prominent ingredient in many drugs before the advent of scientific pharmacology? The author is quite witty a points. When describing the development of Munchausen's syndrome (addiction to surgery) a This encyclopedic work should be consumed along with other books in the rotation. This is pretty comprehensive, but mostly focuses on the development of Western/scientific medicine. You will get a lot of info about fads along with actual scientific progress. One question I have: why feces were such a prominent ingredient in many drugs before the advent of scientific pharmacology? The author is quite witty a points. When describing the development of Munchausen's syndrome (addiction to surgery) as a diagnosis, he comments, "No label seems to have been devised, however, for surgeons addicted to surgery." The description of various experiments provide some good cocktail party conversation fodder: having healthy patients bitten by infected mosquitos (that one wouldn't have gotten IRB approval); "John Brinkley (1885-1942) made a specialty of implanting goats' testicles, promising his clients sexual rejuvenation and relief of high blood pressure"; the beginnings of understanding of the microbiome show up when doctors transplant (via feeding tubes) the stomach contents of non-anemic patients into the stomachs of anemic patients. If you are interested in the history of medicine, this is a good book to lay the foundation. Tidbits: - Why the lack of medical science progress? Perhaps it was the church's focus on the soul, subordinating the body to the spirit (along with Galen worship (if dissection to prove Galen right, it was the anatomist's fault)) - dissection was not prohibited but was restricted to criminal bodies - 1200s in southern Europe there was no separation between surgeon and physician, while in Paris these positions were differently licensed - "The wish to bring dead crusaders back from the Holy Land for burial led to the custom of boiling up bodies to leave only the bones, and to the preservation of the heart of the deceased." - there are passages that show the existence of surgical techniques (e.g. removing cataracts) in 9th century Indian medicine, but there is no evidence of further progress - Galen did not provide many examples of human dissection and applied the results of animal dissection to humans (parallels to modern pharmaceutical research that gets a lot of hype... there's even a scientist whose twitter account is used just add "in mice" to the end of many news headlines hyping the latest findings in pharmaceutical testing) - In 1572, Pare addressed the study of obstetrics, show the art of podalic version (turning a baby in the womb, to facilitate feet-first delivery)." What?! - subtitle of one 16th century book: The Mirror of the Apothecaries and Druggists in Which is Demonstrated How the Apothecaries Commonly Make Mistakes in Several Medicines Contrary to the Intention of the Greeks... on the Basis of the Wicked and Faulty Teachings of the Arabs - "Renaissance humanism benefitted the doctor more than the patient. The new learning hardly helped physicians to cure diseases. But it gave the medical profession an elevated sense of its proper dignity." - thanks to the development of printing, writings popularizing health advice made up for the lack of institutional medical provision - The forceps were developed in the mid-16th century, but their use did not spread because the design was kept a family secret - the life table was developed in 1693 by the astronomer Edmond Halley - because the patients medical history was so important, the common practice of postal diagnosis was perfectly reputable in the 18th century - medical education in late 18th century Britain: Edinburgh University was cheap, had no religious restrictions, lectures in English, no obligation to graduate, and students only paid attended for those courses they desired - surgery in the early 19th century: post-op infection meant that mortality for amputation was as high as 40 percent. "The surgeon's only answers to the excruciating pain attending all knife-and-saw work were skill and speed. In 1824, Astley Cooper took twenty minutes to amputate a leg through the hip joint; ten years later, James Syme was doing it in ninety seconds." - medical fad of the 1800s: incising tongues as treatment to stammering - demonstration of using laughing gas before pulling tooth was botched and the developer of ether began adding ingredients to color it and mask the smell, announcing he had discovered a new gas - "Lister made a fetish of antisepsis but did not scrub his hands... and continued to operate in street clothes" - nursing remained dominated by religious orders in the early 20th century. In Germany, out of a total nurse population of 75,000, only 3000 belonged to the professional Nurses' Association. - By the 1920s, clouding of the cornea was being treated by transplantation, and thermocautery was introduced to repair detached retinas - different development of medical specialization: in Britain, special disease/body part hospitals developed; in the US, hospitals developed to cater to particular ethnic groups rather than disease groups; in Germany and Austria, specialized departments within hospitals (rather separate institutions) were more likely to emerge - hospitals for treatment rather than care of the dying were developed in the wake of optimism towards science and laboratory research - most of the students at the alternative medicine Massachusetts Metaphysical College were mostly women who were excluded from regular medical education - public health: by 1900, diagnostic labs had been set up in every state and in most major cities in the US, while the public health lab developed more slowly in Europe - the importance of showing the mosquito as a vector for various diseases cannot be understated - the mosquito experiments could not be done today. These studies required healthy individuals with no contact with the disease in question be bitten by an infected mosquito (there were volunteers for this!) - anti-malarial campaigns were quite successful in the US and Europe (not needing constant long-term action, malaria was seemingly driven out after a decade). Malaria proved more resilient in less developed areas, most likely due to the endemic nature of malaria in those regions - there was private funding for research on tropical diseases, mostly as a way to facilitate "imperial commerce" - Freud held to the idea (through his last publication) of the importance of the repressed Oedipus complex - pressure from the Rockefeller charity and professional associations led to a decrease in the supply of doctors. In 1910 4400 doctors graduated; by 1920 it was 3047 - Experiment that showed persistent anemia was due to digestive dysfunction: For 10 days, anemic patients were fed minced rare steak. Their blood showed no sign of improvement. At the same time, ordinary men were fed the same amount of steak. Their gastric contents were recovered through a stomach tube. These contents were liquified and fed through a stomach tube to the anemic patients. The patients' blood showed clear signs of regeneration after a few days. - Experiment in endocrinology: It had long been known that castrating a rooster led its comb to atrophy; if the testes were then transplanted to another part of the body, this did not happen - Sharing with serum and vaccine therapies the promise of scientific miracles, testicular implants enjoyed a vogue; monkey-gland implants were popularized in the 1920s; in the US, John Brinkley (1885-1942) made a specialty of implanting goats' testicles, promising his clients sexual rejuvenation and relief of high blood pressure. - Injecting a woman's blood into a lab rat, if the woman was pregnant, the rat would go into heat (1929). - electrocardiograph was invented in 1903 - various surgeries became vogue in 1920s and 1930s, tonsillectomies (vastly oversubscribed), hysterectomies, removal of sympathetic nerves, etc. Munchausen's syndrome (addiction to surgery) became a diagnosis. "No label seems to have been devised, however, for surgeons addicted to surgery." - 1934, electron microscope had the same magnification of the best light microscopes. By 1946, it could magnify objects 200,000 times - 1914, researchers at Johns Hopkins developed artificial kidney for dogs for dialysis. The 1940s saw the first workable dialysis machine for humans - Cost projections of British NHS were way off: calculated annual cost was £170 million, in 1951 the actual cost was £400 million and in 1960 it was £726 million - John Abernathy (1764-1831) was apparently in the habit of barking at fat ladies "Madam, buy a skipping rope" - discussing the utility of medications Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94) "no families take so little medicine as those of doctors" - difference in UK and US: in 1930s, 1 in 7 UK doctors were general practitioners (fewer than half of US were GPs), in 1980s, 65 percent of UK doctors were GPs, only 1 in 8 US doctors - Lamaze (of Lamaze breathing) was a bit of a quack - adhering to home births and rejecting orthodox medicine, the Faith Assembly religious sect in Indiana had a perinatal mortality (i.e. stillbirth or early neonatal death) was 92 times higher than Indiana as a whole (as of the books publishing)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Elena

    Is this book for you? I was looking for a history of disease; this wasn't it. It is exactly what the title says: a medical history of humanity, and its approach is perfect primarily for historians and sociologists. Take the time spent on the cautionary tales of surgery, those early butcheries, forced hysterectomies based on supposed nymphomania and so on. When they happened, it was punctually and mainly in the the hands of the quacks and the crazies, and in less regulated regions like Northameri Is this book for you? I was looking for a history of disease; this wasn't it. It is exactly what the title says: a medical history of humanity, and its approach is perfect primarily for historians and sociologists. Take the time spent on the cautionary tales of surgery, those early butcheries, forced hysterectomies based on supposed nymphomania and so on. When they happened, it was punctually and mainly in the the hands of the quacks and the crazies, and in less regulated regions like Northamerica. As such they have human interest but little medical one; it's not science even in its imperfect, embryologic form, it's human stupidity. I also cared less about the smaller anecdotes of science (Koch's marriage) and the progression of everyone's school, but I would have liked tracing the ancient plagues in place and history more accurately, and a description of the most important sickness in social strata and country. I am interested in the epidemiological data of the XVII century, but it's harder to trace than the development of the microscope. Still, this is extraordinarily readable for a subject that could be approached with reference texts. It is also accurate, precise and occasionally erudite. I have yet to find another similar book which suits me better; until then, I am left with this two-fold surprise: one, that a non-doctor who has spent so much time thinking about medicine and its old inadequacies is so ambivalent about the modern scientific approach, second, that I read the whole book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Daleryan

    'The Greatest Benefit to Mankind' by Roy Porter is a well written and concisely informative narrative of the development of medical science and its relationship with civilization and its progress. The title expresses an opinion that I share. I believe that medicine has bestowed on humankind the greatest benefits of the advancement and institutionalization of a field of knowledge. The beginnings of medicine are as dark and harsh as any of the other realities and practices of those days. Today, 'The Greatest Benefit to Mankind' by Roy Porter is a well written and concisely informative narrative of the development of medical science and its relationship with civilization and its progress. The title expresses an opinion that I share. I believe that medicine has bestowed on humankind the greatest benefits of the advancement and institutionalization of a field of knowledge. The beginnings of medicine are as dark and harsh as any of the other realities and practices of those days. Today, medicine is most often practiced in a sterile environment with state of the art equipment that is operated by people you can trust to know exactly what they are doing. Who fears the hospital and its professional staff, even knowing the heavy and dire situations that go on there? But in the days of medicine's infancy and for the longest time, before the Enlightenment and the professionalization of the science(fairly recent events), the practice of medicine could be very dangerous and surgery was horrific. Medicine and the art of surgery was there on probably every bloody battlefield in history, too. Before morphine and anesthesia, war-cries were then soon exchanged for ones of sheer bone-sawing pain. Back then: -Childbirth was potentially fatal to both the mother and or her offspring. -There was little knowledge of bacteria and disease or how exactly they spread, or who could be most susceptible to what and why. -mental health could be a nightmare. -Common procedures for any diagnosis from physical ailments to pshycological diagnosis could include dangerously bleeding the patient out. -Hospitals were the filthiest most disease ridden places. -Average life expectancy was decades shorter than it is today. And today: +Nearly everybody is born in a hospital. +Most people are required to be vaccinated. +Psychology is more understood. +There is a standard procedure for everything. +Hospitals are sterile and safe. +Life expectancy is decades greater and rising. -In fact these days the only thing keeping most people from near perfect health is their own diet and lifestyle. Anyways, Roy Porter's book is probably the best on shelves for anyone interested in the history of Medicine, an enlightening good read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    John-andrew

    If you want an interesting, and fairly comprehensive, history of medicine, this is a great place to start. Porter's direct, to-the-point, style works as a counterpoint to his nuanced understanding of how western (science based) medicine came to be, and how it's used around the world as modern medicine. But his perspective expands boundaries, showing not only the history of medicine in various parts of the world but how traditional medicines often complement modern medicines. As the husband of a If you want an interesting, and fairly comprehensive, history of medicine, this is a great place to start. Porter's direct, to-the-point, style works as a counterpoint to his nuanced understanding of how western (science based) medicine came to be, and how it's used around the world as modern medicine. But his perspective expands boundaries, showing not only the history of medicine in various parts of the world but how traditional medicines often complement modern medicines. As the husband of a future physician, I'm doing my part to understand my wife's vocation. Reading about the history of medicine is fascinating, and Porter's book brings the many characters, concepts, philosophies, triumphs, and tragedies to life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Womack

    This was a really good history of medicine from the earliest times until the end of the nineteenth century, and then ran through the twentieth century, and in particular through the era of effective pharmaceuticals, in a terrible rush, finishing with a discussion of HIV that really showed its age.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Gertrude

    I must admit I knew nothing of Roy Porter or works, but after reading The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present , I am so happy to have discovered this talented writer.

  13. 4 out of 5

    M C

    -encyclopedic information amount -best skimmed unless already familiar with what is being discussed -well written -already a big out of date, facts and figures from 90s at the latest

  14. 4 out of 5

    Olivia Winchester

    I enjoyed this quite a bit. The style is easy to read and very interesting. A good read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mairead

    Wow, some book, some bits fascinating, some not

  16. 4 out of 5

    Reviews by Vallie

    What a magnificent novel!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rheta

    The ending is realistic.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jaiden

    Takes you to another grand place.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ethelyn

    Absolutely not boring.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ortic

    I was pulling for each character.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul Norris

    if anything too short

  22. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Incredibly thorough and objective

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    A compelling perspective on the history of medicine from pre-Antiquity to (almost) the present day. It really brought home to me how rapid the rise of medicine has been over the past 60-70 years and how little it had to offer before that. Mr Porter is certainly opinionated and I don't necessarily agree with the extent of his cynicism at times, albeit with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight. Nonetheless, he raises some compelling questions and paints a detailed picture of medicine throughout th A compelling perspective on the history of medicine from pre-Antiquity to (almost) the present day. It really brought home to me how rapid the rise of medicine has been over the past 60-70 years and how little it had to offer before that. Mr Porter is certainly opinionated and I don't necessarily agree with the extent of his cynicism at times, albeit with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight. Nonetheless, he raises some compelling questions and paints a detailed picture of medicine throughout the ages. Recommended for anyone who is interested in how medicine has evolved over time, although it will make for a somewhat easier read if you are already familiar with medical jargon.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Moira

    Overall a good read....it's amazing how far we've come in medicine ! I will admit some parts of the book put me to sleep whereas others sparked my interests like the section on the history of anesthesia and surgical procedures and techniques. If you are a huge history buff and have a keen interest in the medical sciences, this is the book for you. Overall a good read....it's amazing how far we've come in medicine ! I will admit some parts of the book put me to sleep whereas others sparked my interests like the section on the history of anesthesia and surgical procedures and techniques. If you are a huge history buff and have a keen interest in the medical sciences, this is the book for you.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Hao

    The beginning parts were very interesting and tied together well. It seemed a bit messy, perhaps reflecting the rapid developments of modern medicine, towards the end. I feel I have a better understanding of the philosophical approaches of western medicine.

  26. 5 out of 5

    E. Davies

    Encyclopedic, idiosyncratic and deeply learned. Occasionally a little bit of wilful political correctness intrudes, but basically Porter has too fine a grasp of truth to let it disturb his incredible sweeping survey of the culture and science of medicine since history began. Remarkably readabl.e

  27. 4 out of 5

    Chris Pederson

    An absolute MUST read. Fascinating look at the interplay of science, religion, progress, society, and politics with medicine. Medicine will never cure death, we will all die. Sometimes you don't need a pill to get better, just time. An absolute MUST read. Fascinating look at the interplay of science, religion, progress, society, and politics with medicine. Medicine will never cure death, we will all die. Sometimes you don't need a pill to get better, just time.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Douthit

    Not the most compelling, reads a bit like a textbook. Also, the author is pretty pessimistic about the advances of medicine, and I felt like the last two chapters contained quite a bit of editorializing. Overall, an interesting read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Danelle

    200 pages in & I'm calling it quits. It's an extremely well written book, but it's reading too much like a textbook right now & along with this winter dreariness, I just can't. I'd love to come back to it & plan on doing so. 200 pages in & I'm calling it quits. It's an extremely well written book, but it's reading too much like a textbook right now & along with this winter dreariness, I just can't. I'd love to come back to it & plan on doing so.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Wyndy

    This is an upper division/ graduate level read. If you are lazy or not truly interested in the history of medicine, don't bother. As medical sociology faculty at Georgia State, I require this book of my students. It's worth your time. This is an upper division/ graduate level read. If you are lazy or not truly interested in the history of medicine, don't bother. As medical sociology faculty at Georgia State, I require this book of my students. It's worth your time.

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