Magazine article The Spectator

Not for Ailing Aunt Agatha

Magazine article The Spectator

Not for Ailing Aunt Agatha

Article excerpt

THE GREATEST BENEFIT TO MANKIND:

A MEDICAL HISTORY OF HUMANITY FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT by Roy Porter

HarperCollins, L24.99, pp. 831

Humanity' means Western humanity for most of the book, although there are sections dealing with Indian and Chinese medicine as quickly as decency allows. Those who enjoy having their seven pulses interpreted from just the one wrist, or benefit from contact with smouldering fragments of boxwood, will probably regret this sidelining of the Orient. Those reluctant to read more than 700 pages on any subject will not. The length is inevitable; and yet the medical history of mankind could be summed up in one sentence, viz:

As humans multiply, congregate, eat more and live longer, they fall prey to more and more diseases, and to more and more doctors; after millennia of virtual ineffectiveness, Western medicine has counteracted this tendency for long enough to disturb this cycle for a century or so, and allow an increase in population which will probably succumb to a truly apocalyptic bug quite soon.

I think that's everything, and it goes a little further than Professor Porter in the doom department. There is, of course, one real difference between the past and now, since they had no clear idea of what was making them ill, and we have, even if we cannot do much about it. 'Ironic', he calls it, `that a lethal disease which disables the immune system should have come upon the scene at the moment when the fact could at last be understood.'

So it is good to look back, past the short space of time in which medicine, science and health have been associated in more than theory, to inspect the long ages in which they followed more independent paths, and the war between mankind and bacteria was waged, so to speak, blindfold.

That was when medicine originated: not as a way of curing diseases and physical defects, but of curbing insanitary habits by philosophies of moderation, dosing, and patching up wounds. Those who sneer at old-time medicine miss this obvious point. Its aims were as alien to us as its methods; but those aims and methods were reasonably compatible. The theme of this history is not the long gestation of a scientific triumph, but the sequence of many sciences, none of much use in combating serious sickness, but none remotely as lethal in its side-effects as the triumphant medicine of Dr Mengele of Auschwitz and Dr Ishii of Pingfan, who took vivisection to its logical conclusion and dissected living humans, when they were not infecting them with typhoid or boiling them alive. The men of old made many mistakes, and they fill this book: Galen's were faithfully reproduced by Leonardo in sketches apparently made from life 1,300 years later, and others offered treatments which ended or threatened life prematurely. Charles II was virtually tortured to death by doctors after his stroke; Galen's infectious belief in blood-letting weakened millions through the centuries down to our own; thousands of mothers were slain by the `puerperal fever' given them by the unwashed hands of medical students; and as late as the 1830s it was held that London surgery patients `were exposed to more chances of death than were the English soldiers on the field of Waterloo'.

All the same, the doctors or surgeons were on the same side as the patients. They had not become supermen, like Mengele, Ishii and the contrivers of the Tuskeegee experiment with syphilitic negroes. And after all, most English soldiers survived the battle of Waterloo, and it seems that the majority of surgical cases even in 18th-century London, did not die of infected incisions. All through the paramedical millennia, patients survived in numbers large enough to sustain belief in remedies which we try to avoid: plasters of dung, dressings of pulverised mummy, applications of animal and human flesh, full measures of arsenic, sulphur, mercury and gold. Medical practitioners were constantly attacked by satirists and sceptics on one side, and by 'domestic' and low-cost treatment on the other; and yet they never managed to kill the public demand for their skills, or daunt the religion of the cure. …

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