The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (Anglais) Broché – 1 février 1999
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Porter's historical account of medicine and healing is fascinating and delves deep to reveal how people's attitudes toward medicine has changed over the years, including the big breakthroughs. While the book covers a global history, it is primarily European - which is explained by the fact that "Western medicine has developed in ways which made it uniquely powerful and... uniquely global." Sounds a bit like the power of imperialism...
The book is a refreshing read and is certainly anything but boring. His tone is comical, engaging, enlightening, and that of a lecturer all at once. Porter has structured his work perfectly and the chapter titles give you the option to quickly look up what you need to know if you're in a hurry. Perfect if you're a student! If you are simply interested in medical history this is a must-read, but be sure to also look at Sexuality: An Illustrated History.
Porter has an eye for the unusual, spicing up his reporting with examples of odd concoctions and practices used for various maladies down through the ages, such as the use of pulverized crocodile dung, various herbs, and honey as a contraceptive pessary among the ancient Egyptians, or the English resistance against legal revisions (including town sewer reform among other things) attempting to fight cholera in the 19th century: "We prefer to take our chances with cholera and the rest rath! er than be bullied into health," reported THE TIMES. Most refreshingly, he is not timid in rendering pronouncements for both good and ill on the medical profession, bringing a candor needed to assess the impact of medicine down through the ages. He is thorough without being tedious, educational without being pedantic, and has a fine eye for comedy without being flippant.
As someone with an interest in history and by vocation a surgeon, I found Roy Porter's book a delightfully instructive volume to read. I look forward to returning to peruse it many times in the years ahead.
In terms of content I think this is the more comprehensive of the two general reference works. It is over twice the length of Cambridge (over 800 pages in this one compared to not quite 400). It also doesn't have pages taken up with illustrations as Cambridge does. That is probably the thing I like least about this book, there are only three small sections in the middle with some black and white pictures reproduced - I think on comparison I do prefer the slightly more expensive version of having pictures on the pages I am reading for this kind of reference work.
The book is divided into 22 chapters which follow the rise of Western medicine more or less chronologically. There are also chapters included on Chinese and Indian Medicine, but expect the emphasis to be European in both history and development. Each chapter is divided into specific topics which are discussed a structure I quite enjoyed as it broke up the text and made it more readable.
I looked up some specific subjects to compare this with the Cambrige work and in each case (among them Purperal fever, Galen, Resurrectionists) this book had far more detailed and comprehensive explanations, often citing broad statistics. However writing the a social and medical history of mankind is difficult to do full justice even in 800-some pages. It does give a slightly provide more detail but I wasn't really sure that the slightly greater detail was that much of an advantage to make up for the loss of illustration. In the end this is still only slightly more detail on broad trends rather than in-depth discussion. He does cover some people and subjects not dealt with in "Cambridge" including people like Dr James Barry, the first female surgeon (although she was masquerading as a man at the time) - but of course the space available doesn't allow Porter to discuss any of her other significant work as, in terms of forwarding the field of medicine, she was not earth-shattering.
Porter has a very good-natured and readable style of writing though and I really enjoyed it. He breaks this chapters up into short sections and interspeses them with rather nice jokes for instance on page 129 he writes of 'Trotula'said to be a female of 12th century medical school in Salerno but says " 'Dame Trot' was more likely a male writing in drag."
So while I very much enjoyed the book and would certainly have no qualms in recommending it to read at all, I do hold some reservations about it - but strictly in comparison with what else is available.