Introduced by Jeremy Farrar
Roy Porter’s erudite chronicle of the history of medicine remains the definitive work on the subject.
‘This account is completely without the cynicism which seems to have disfigured so much recently written medical history’
For much of the human race, standards of health and longevity are at all-time highs: the average British woman can expect to live twice as long as her Victorian predecessors, and the death rates of many diseases are falling. But, ironically, we live in an age of deep ambivalence towards medical institutions and acute anxiety about threats to our well-being – some real, others supposed. Roy Porter asks: ‘Have we become health freaks or hypochondriacs … precisely because we are so healthy and long-lived that we now have the leisure to enjoy the luxury of worrying?’ Even-handed and immensely readable, Porter’s book charts the interplay of faith, superstition, philosophy and science that has shaped our perception of the body, and thereby our medical theories and practices. Along the way, he reveals a fascinating range of diseases and afflictions, and their often unexpected origins and ‘cures’.
From the Palaeolithic era to the 20th century, the ‘symbiosis of disease with society’ becomes clear. The neolithic revolution may have solved starvation, but proximity to animals resulted in the transfer of pathogens and brought forth new afflictions: smallpox, influenzas and rhinoviruses (the common cold). War and colonisation could turn epidemics into pandemics, and cities, with their bustling populations and poor public health, remained deadly until the 19th century – proving, as Porter writes, that ‘progress brings pestilence’.
‘A superb book – fluent, lucid, scary and even funny’
For centuries, curious treatments often prevailed: the ancient Roman cure for malarial fever was ‘bed bugs mashed with meat and beans’; one 6th-century Greek physician advised epileptics to ‘take a nail of a wrecked ship, make it into a bracelet and set therein the bone of a stag’s heart taken from its body whilst alive’. But gradually the art of medicine became a science. Anatomy, surgery and pharmacology took shape, and the Western model spread across the globe. Its rejection of the ‘traditional wisdom of the body’, says Porter, is key to both its ‘strengths and weaknesses’.
Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and former student of Roy Porter, recalls lectures delivered with infectious enthusiasm and describes Porter’s eminence as a historian, teacher, reviewer and author.
Roy Porter (1946–2002) was a historian, author and broadcaster noted for his work on the history of medicine and psychiatry. Born in London he won a scholarship to read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and graduated with a double first, becoming a junior fellow in 1968 and lecturing on the British Enlightenment. He moved to Churchill College, Cambridge, as Director of Studies in History in 1972, and was appointed Dean in 1977. In 1979 Porter joined the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine as a lecturer, and in 1993 became Professor of Social History at the Institute until his retirement in 2001 – he served briefly as the Institute’s director during this time. His other publications include Mind-Forg’d Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (1987), A Social History of Madness (1987), Patient’s Progress: Doctors and Doctoring in Eighteenth-Century England (1989), London: A Social History (1994) and Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). Porter was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994, and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Jeremy Farrar is director of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, and was previously Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, where his research interests were infectious diseases, tropical health and emerging infections. Farrar was appointed OBE in 2005 for services to tropical medicine, and he has been awarded the Memorial Medal and the Ho Chi Minh City Medal by the Government of Vietnam, the Frederick Murgatroyd Prize for Tropical Medicine by the Royal College of Physicians, and the Bailey Ashford Award by the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
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