I am continuing my contribution to the Non-Fiction November Initiative with the list below of seven most fascinating “history of medicine” non-fiction books.
I. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Lindsey Fitzharris’s book on British surgeon Joseph Lister and the transformation of the Victorian medicine is an unputdownable book that introduces the reader to the astonishing medical practices that people expected in the 19th century. In times when the “germ” theory was deemed “implausible” and when hospitals were places with unsanitary conditions, one man challenged the traditional way of looking at operations and diseases that follow open wounds. I cannot praise this book highly enough.
II. The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman
The author of this book is a paleoanthropologist and in his book he talks about the history of the human body from the ancient times to the modern age. Why this book ended up on this list? Well, Prof. Lieberman’s conclusions are ground-breaking, especially on how to avoid common diseases, such as obesity, arthritis and certain cancers that plague today’s nations. The author maintains that we, as humans, were never supposed to suffer from certain illnesses and only do so because we no longer use our bodies as our ancestors did. Consuming too much sugar and leading sedentary lifestyles, we forgot our bodies’ evolutionary purposes. The key to longevity may be taking the course that our bodies were designed to follow.
III. Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
I can never make a non-fiction book list without mentioning Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015), one of my favourite authors who was a great neurologist. His book Awakenings (also a film of 1990 with Robin Williams) talks about the victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica (“sleeping sickness”) epidemic, an event that marked an important chapter in understanding unusual and perplexing illnesses. The author also talks about the “L-DOPA” treatment, a supposed controversial cure for this mysterious disease which leaves patients with a variety of puzzling symptoms, including extreme lethargy and Parkinsonism. Finally, Oliver Sacks talks about his own efforts to help patients with this condition in the 1960s New York. Encephalitis lethargica was “the biggest medical mystery of the 20th century”.
IV. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
It is safe to say that this book by the eminent cancer physician Siddhartha Mukherjee is the history account of cancer, tracing the disease from its first documented cases in ancient times (such as in Greece) to twentieth century battle and the quest to find “the miracle cure”. Dr Mukherjee talks about real people who battle cancer everyday, explains chemotherapy and elaborates on the cellular nature of cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a comprehensive, informative and engaging book, recommended to anyone who has even the slightest interest in the topic.
V. Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed
This book is all about tuberculosis or TB, its history of diagnosis, treatment and research. Contrary to some popular opinion, TB is far from being “an illness of the past”, and Dr Lougheed convincingly shows how the disease has “evolved to become of the smartest killers around”, being passed on by one adaptable organism that has an even clearer path to destruction because of drug-resistance. Perhaps Kathryn Lougheed’s account is a little too dry and unfocused, but it is still a very readable and interesting book.
VI. The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks by Steven Johnson
This books details the cholera outbreak at the very heart of London in 1854 through contaminated water. Johnson explains how human actions (and inaction), ignorance and overpopulation made it possible for one type of bacteria to cause so many deaths (616) in such a short period of time. The book also demonstrates how one man’s theory (Dr John Snow’s) that cholera is caused by something “you swallowed, not breathed in” [2008: 77] helped save many lives. Although the book is a little chaotic, it is still an engaging and well-researched one.
VII. When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D Mezrich
This is a personal story of Joshua D Mezrich, an organ transplantation surgeon in the US who “creates life from loss” by transplanting organs from one person to another. His account also touches upon the history of transplants in the US and in the world, focusing specifically on liver and kidneys. Moreover, the author tries to answer some of the most controversial questions in medicine, such as should alcoholics be given new livers and what defines death? Although this book is uneven with a couple of even very insensitive statements, it is still a fascinating and eye-opening read.