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Blood & Guts: A Short History of Medicine, by Roy Porter

March 20, 2012

My housemate gave me this book for my birthday. Though I’m currently studying Medical Humanities (Instead of History of Medicine) I still find this subject quite neat.

The book is divided into eight thematic sections, going through 2500-odd years of medicine in terms of, to mention a few, disease, hospitals, doctors. Since you don’t have to wallow in a particularly dry part of history for any amount of time, the book feels incredibly pacy. It’s certainly a quick-read – I don’t think it even took me a whole week. The downside of this is that at times, it can seem quite whistle-stop, simply name-dropping a doctor here and there, a drug, a disease, before moving on to the next wave of medical enlightenment.

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The book is nicely illustrated with various drawings and diagrams from the the entirety of western medicine. They range from the quasi-artistic illustrations from Vesalius, to satirical cartoons in 18th century newspapers. The prose isn’t particularly dry but they do provide the occasional break.

A more holistic student might complain of the hemispheric bias in the book. Apart from the occasional nod to Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine, the book is rooted firmly in European medicine (including Islamic medicine by Avicenna and friends, and America, once they got going). However, with western medicine going from hallucinating priests and the four humours to hospital institutions, patient-centred-care and drugs by the bottle-full, there is arguably a stronger narrative to tell.

An alternative name for this book would be Blood and Guts: An Introduction to the History of Medicine, because that is what it inevitably feels like. Personally, I would have preferred to go into more depth into some of the times and subjects Porter describes, especially when I already knew more than what was being explained in the book. It is a very good introduction, to whet someone’s interest in this topic, but it is only the first, and smallest, stepping stone.

Apart from a few oddly-worded sentences, Porter writes with an easy style. As I’ve already mentioned, the book is a swift read. Jargon is thankfully absent, as this book seems intended for a lay audience. As a medical student, this sometimes felt patronising but I’m willing to overlook that.

On the whole, this is a good book, especially if you’re looking to be a bit academic but don’t want to be bogged down with a lengthy tome. Its scope is broad and extensive but lacks in depth. However, if it leaves you wanting to learn more, it has surely succeeded as a short history of medicine.

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