Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicine

Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicine

Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicine

Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicine


Who were the scientific geniuses behind some of the most innovative and important discoveries in modern medicine?

Medical science in the 21st century is continuing to advance, but the character of that advancement is now governed by research teams and committees. Yet in the 19th century - a century when there were many great individual discoveries in medicine - the contributions of four individuals in particular accelerated developments in each of the main branches of medicine. This medical history by Thomas Dormandy focuses on these four individuals and their "moments of truth" - Laennec, a French physician; Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician; Lister, a Scottish surgeon; and Walter Reed, an American army pathologist. They are not well known, compared with their contemporaries in other walks of life, yet their moments of truth transformed the lives of millions.

Thomas Dormandy is a retired consultant pathologist (MD, PhD, DSc, FRCS, FRCPath). He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and two books aimed at a general readership, The White Death: A History of Turberculosis , which was short listed for the Aventis prize and RMS book of the month, and Old Masters, a work of art history.


Professions like to claim long and impressive pedigrees. Princely dynasties too, especially those of obscure or plebeian origin, liked to trace their lineage to Julius Caesar or King Solomon. These were innocent conceits. So are most professional ancestries. Yet there was usually a decade or a century when modern professions turned into what makes them recognisable today. Only the time of transformation was rarely the one that is traditionally commemorated.

Traditionally, doctors in the West have looked back to the island of Cos where, 2500 years ago, Hippocrates dispensed words and perhaps deeds of medical wisdom. He was a nebulous historical figure. His name means a driver of horses, but little else is known about him. The Hippocratic writings are a collection of old texts of mixed and uncertain origin. His most famous aphorism, 'Art is long, opportunity is fleeting, experiment is uncertain and judgement is difficult', is usually misquoted or given in its corrupt Latin form. He also formulated a code of conduct and an oath. They are noble precepts, but as hard to obey in practice as the Ten Commandments.

Sometimes the profession is traced back even further, to the semi-divine figure of Aesculapius (or Asklepios). The son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis, he dwelt on the slopes, if not on the very summit, of Mount Olympus. He had many shrines in the Hellenic world. They were usually situated near healing springs in salubrious surroundings, not unlike some of the more expensive sanatoria and health farms 2000 years later. Pilgrims in search of health slept in the temple grounds because the god performed his cures during sleep. His professional attendants sometimes supervised lengthy courses of treatment. Those who were healed were asked to hang up votive tablets recording their . . .

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