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The medical book (Book review)

Sumptuous presentation of medical milestones

‘The medical book’ by Clifford A. Pickover. Pp 527. Price £19.99. China: Sterling; 2012. ISBN 978 1 4027 8585 6

I did not expect the wow factor when I opened a book on the history of medicine. But Cliff Pickover’s review of milestones in medical science is presented in a sumptuous way, with clear text accompanied by lavish full-colour illustrations.

‘The medical book’ completes a trilogy with the author’s earlier ‘The math book’ and ‘The physics book’. As with its predecessors, it restricts itself to 250 bite-sized pieces of history, presented in roughly chronological order. It opens with the rise of the witch doctor in about 10,000BC and concludes with the first human cloning in 2008.

Each morsel of history is presented as a two-page spread. An essay of about 500 words appears on each left-hand page and an appropriate — and often eye-catching — illustration fills the facing page.

The topics are wide-ranging, covering subjects such as genetics, pharmacology, neurology, surgery, ophthalmology, dentistry, birth control, hygiene, psychology and immunology. Non-mainstream themes include truth serums, the medieval persecution of Jewish physicians, the Red Cross, treatment of the mentally ill, Gray’s Anatomy and health insurance.

The illustrations are equally wide-ranging. Many are reproductions of early photographs and old paintings, drawings, manuscripts, engravings, maps and posters. Other images include botanical photographs, photomicrographs, x-rays and colourful artistic representations of human organs and molecular models. I was least wowed by the photographs used to illustrate innovations in medical equipment — but how can you photograph a stethoscope sexily?

Not everyone would agree with Dr Pickover’s choice of landmark events, and pharmacists may be disappointed that the book does not include more about the discovery of new drug therapies. Only a dozen or so of the milestone events relate specifically to pharmaceutical innovations, and the most recent of these is the isolation of the first statin 40 years ago. However, overall the book contains plenty of other material that should fascinate the pharmacist.

Even at full list price ‘The medical book’ offers value for money. It would make a delightful gift for anyone involved in healthcare or with a general interest in history. It is not a work to be ploughed through from cover to cover. Rather, it is one to browse, enjoying the well chosen and often beautiful illustrations and stopping to see how each relates to the event described on the facing page.

Andrew Haynes is former deputy editor at The Pharmaceutical Journal

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11115982

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