A Bitter Pill for Mankind

Article excerpt


THE GREATEST BENEFIT TO MANKIND by Roy Porter (HarperCollins, [pounds sterling]25) THIS mammoth medical history is hypochondriac heaven. Almost everything you wanted to know about the advance of medical science is included in Roy Porter's 700 gripping, scholarly, fact-packed pages.

It's a must-have book and the essential accompaniment to those well-thumbed, panic-inducing medical dictionaries that we're all secretly addicted to.

Porter begins in antiquity, examining how healers taught and thought down the ages, moves through medieval times, includes Chinese and Indian practices, and arrives at Western medicine with its astounding scientific advances, its capacity to conquer many previously fatal diseases and ensure that life for most people in the West has ceased to be nasty, brutish and short.

We learn, for instance, that many of the worst human diseases are a direct consequence of prehistoric man domesticating animals. Humans were relatively free of disease until cows passed on tuberculosis and smallpox, pigs and ducks gave us flu and horses brought the common cold.

Measles, which still kills millions of children, was a mutation of the canine distemper bug; water polluted by animals spread polio, cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis, whooping cough and diphtheria. Reading Porter makes you realise that vets are dicing with death every working day.

Admittedly, the sheer scope of this study makes it a daunting, occasionally heavy-going read. But Porter livens things up with plenty of arresting anecdotes. In ancient Egypt, for example, a remedy for stomach trouble was a drink prepared from black ass testicles. A baldness preventative was an ointment containing hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, goose and snake fat.

The Venerable Bede (672-735) treated paralysis by piercing the patient's neck, pouring the blood into running water and spitting three times. In 1280 Edward II's physician treated epilepsy by bedecking the sufferer with peony and chrysanthemum amulets or hair of a white dog.

We learn how epidemics devastated ancient civilisations and that the Black Death, the most catastrophic epidemic to strike Europe, killed 200 million people in three years.

A lack of lemons was as much responsible as Nelson for Napoleon's defeat as scurvy struck down his sailors. Yellow fever wrecked French efforts to recover Haiti after the 1790 slave revolt, South Seas explorers brought syphilis to Tahiti, and tuberculosis and measles to the Maoris with disastrous consequences.

For centuries, women, always involved in midwifery and practical healing, were excluded from the study of medicine. In medieval times, medical scribes (male, naturally) lambasted women as flawed, sickly versions of men. Martin Luther (1483-1546) instigator of the Reformation, thundered that women 'should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children'. …