This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. Roy Porter was a professor on the social history of medicine at University College London. His skill at delivering cogent, interesting lectures is readily apparent in this book. I wish I’d been able to sit in on his classes.
Blood and Guts breaks the long history of medicine into easily digestible chunks: Disease, Doctors, The Laboratory, Surgery, The Hospital. Each chapter sweeps over the span of medicine, picking out the choicest tidbits to make precise points. Starting with the legends of the Christian Fall and Pandora’s Box, Porter shows how mankind knew – long before science proved it – that we bring plagues and pestilences down on ourselves. When humans lived as nomads, rarely were enough people gathered in one place long enough for disease to breed and become virulent. Only with the domestication of livestock did disease begin to cross the species barriers: tuberculosis from cattle, flu from ducks, the common cold from horses.
In fact, the book is full of little conversational morsels. The fabled Hippocratic doctors of Greece relied on the theory of bodily humors because they knew so little about anatomy; dissection being completely against the Greek reverence for the body. In the first half of the 13th century, pharmacists and physicians formed a guild in Florence, becoming one of the city’s seven major crafts. The average American visited the doctor 5 times in 2000, despite being healthier than humans have ever been.
One of my favorite chapters was “The Body,” basically a history of anatomists and body snatchers. I hadn’t realized that the study of human anatomy, perhaps even vivisection, stretched back to Hellenistic Alexandria in 300 BCE. I’ve long been fascinated by the concept that Renaissance doctors performed public dissections for the edification of any who cared to attend. (It’s a shame they don’t do that any more!) Dissection revealed the glorious complexity of the human corpse and changed the nature of human thought once it was understood that the body was an efficient machine.
There’s ever so much more of interest here, but let me encourage you to explore it for yourself. When this book came from the publisher for review, I asked several of the contributors if they’d like to read it for me. They all shied away from a history of medicine, claiming their own health had taught them more about the subject than they cared to know. Don’t make that assumption! This book is fascinating, well worth the time to read, and won’t make you feel any worse about your own health. In fact, the perspective it provides will make you glad we live in this era and no other!
This review originally came from Morbid Curiosity #8.
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