Medicine, Old and New

The pending flip of the calendar to a new page and a new year is a fitting time to contemplate the patterns of change in medicine.  Over eras and epochs, the practice and perceptions of the healing arts and sciences change inexorably—sometimes with the determined linearity of a railroad track, and sometimes with the dizzying circularity of a Ferris wheel.

Straight Lines and Circles

Jacalyn Duffin quotes an internet meme in the preface to her excellent History of Medicine, A Scandalously Short Introduction.

Doc, I have an earache.
2000 BC Here, eat this root.
1000 BC That root is heathen, say this prayer.
1850 AD Prayer is superstition, drink this potion.
1930 AD That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill.
1970 AD That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic.
2000 AD That antibiotic is artificial, here, eat this root. 



Or, as the esteemed Doctor William Osler observed:

The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow. 

William Osler

William Osler

This is not arm-chair philosophy. Consider the resurgence of bacteriophage as an anti-bacterial agent, an idea that came and went in the 1920s. The novel Arrowsmith portrays the contemporary excitement of this research. Very recently, a man’s life was saved with bacteriophage treatment for an antibiotic resistant infection. (More on that to come in a future post).

History of Medicine, Second Edition: A Scandalously Short Introduction

Jacalyn Duffin

"Jacalyn Duffin's History of Medicine has for ten years been one of the leading texts used to teach medical and nursing students the history of their profession. It has also been widely used in history courses and by general readers."


Heroes and Villains

The New Year is also a good time to contemplate new pursuits. Perhaps you have a burgeoning interest in the History of Medicine, say. You may want to play the Medical History Game—from Duffin again.

She offers a list of historical figures in medicine.  Our task is to choose some (let’s say three) and determine, based on our own research, whether a given person is a hero, villain—or both!

I discussed my investigation of Dr. J Marion Sims in a previous post. My interpretation of primary and secondary sources is that Sims does not deserve the condemnation that is au courant. I asked certain decision makers and ‘thought–leaders’ involved with the Sims’ controversy to rebut my postion, but no one cared to. Whether his statue stands or falls is still under consideration.

Below is the list for you to choose from.
Here are some things to keep in mind on your journey: 

• When Googling, be sure to look beyond page one of the search results. 
• Feel free to start with Wikipedia, but dive deeper, using its references as a spring board. 
• Read up a bit on how to ask historical questions and work with sources. A Pocket Guide to Writing in HIstory, by Mary Lynn Rampolla, is both thorough and concise.
• Acquire some context, an overview of the history of medicine. A good place to start is the Duffin book. It is critically acclaimed and written by a physician and historian who occupies a university chair in History of Medicine.

You can find the Pocket GuideDuffin's book and others in the history of medicine on our Amazon affiliate links.

 As always feel free to leave a comment, or contact us at


Pick three. Hero, Villain, or both? 

Abbot, Maude
Apgar, Virginia
Aretaeus Of Cappadocia
Arnaldus Of Villanova
Austin, Jl "Blimey"
Baltimore, David
Banting, Frederick
Barry, James Miranda
Beaumont, WR
Bernard, Claude
Bethune, Norman
Blackwell, Elizabeth
Caius, John
Carrel, Alexis
Chadwick, Edwin
Charcot, Jean Martin
Chisholm, Brock
Domagk, Gerhard
Egas-Moniz, AAC
Esquirol, JE Dominique
Freud, Sigmund
Gadjusek, D Carleton
Gallo, Robert

Olivieri, Nancy
Osler, William
Pare, Ambroise
Pasteur, Louis
Pauling, Linus
Pinel, Phillipe
Rush, Benjamin
Sarrazin, Michel
Simpson, James Young
Sims, Marion J
Smith-Shortt, Elizabeth
Soranus of Ephesus
Stopes, Mary
Stowe, Emily
Sydenham, Thomas
Trotula of Salerno
Trout, Jenny
Vesalius, Andreas
Virchow, Rudolph
Wagner-Jauregg, J
Watson, James D
Withering, Wiliam
Wright, Almroth

Grenfell, Wilfred
Hahnemann, Samuel
Halsted, William
Harvey, William
Hildegard of Bingen
Hunter, John
Hunter, William
Jackson, Mary Percy
Jenner, Edward
Kelsey, Frances Oldham
Koprowski, Hilary
Krugman, Saul
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth
Lexchin, Joel
MacKenzie, James
MacMurchy, Helen
McBride, Wiliiam
McKenzie, Robert Taft
Mitchell, Silas Meir
Morgentaler, Henry
Müller, PH
Neisser, Albert
Nelles (Pine), Susan
Nightengale, Florence