NOT SO long ago, the history of medicine was something that doctors worked on during weekends or after retirement. Although the histories they produced had many admirable qualities, their gaze was not always broad enough to encompass themes beyond the narrowly scientific. The history of medicine, even for the best historians of that generation, was the story of scientific progress. Few "real" historians showed much interest in such technical matters and the doctor-historians didn't expect them to.
All that has changed radically over the last three decades or so. The history of medicine - in its broad sense as "the historical interaction of people, disease and healthcare, set in context of societies and their beliefs", to steal Roy Porter's succinct definition - has become a thriving area of full- time scholarship. Historians have discovered the body, as have literary scholars and sociologists. Although doctors have not surrendered their historical interests, the centre of gravity has moved to the humanities and social sciences.
This "new" history has little interest in the technical and scientific, and charting of progress is not on its agenda. It concentrates, instead, on the social, cultural and human dimensions of health, illness and healers. As with most academic endeavours, hardly any of this research ever makes it to the public domain. In spite of the ever-increasing popular interest in topics such as sexuality, genetics, addiction and mental illness, relatively few medical historians have contributed as ably to public discourse as political and cultural historians.
Perhaps the sole medical historian to defy academic purdah regularly was the author of this book. Roy Porter, who died suddenly on 4 March this year at the age of 55, was one of the earliest and best-known professional historians of medicine. Over the decades he spent at the Wellcome Institute, part of University College, London, he became legendary for his industriousness and for the generous, erudite and inspiring leadership that he provided to students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars.
His research on every aspect of healthcare in 18th-century Britain galvanised a whole generation of students and researchers, conquering vast new domains - from madhouses to quack remedies, from gout to melancholia, from famous doctors to unknown patients - for the evolving discipline.
Committed as he was to the history of medicine, however, narrow specialisation was anathema to Porter. Nothing gave him more joy than to finish a book on gout and turn, without pause, to the history of the British Enlightenment. Or, for that matter, to take up the history of the Bedlam Hospital (the best-known British insane asylum) as soon as he had completed a vast social history of London.
Although he spent his entire career in the groves of academe, Porter never forgot that there was a real world out there, with an audience no less stimulating than his professional colleagues. …