Welcome to a fascinating and highly informative history of the evolution of Western medicine presented through mini-biographies of the figures, who, in the opinion of the author, have constructed the edifice of modern medicine.
Here are extremely well-written portraits of 86 individuals (scientists and physicians, as well as a few nurses and lay persons) whose achievements justify inclusion in the author's medical pantheon.
In his acknowledgments, John Galbraith Simmons, who is also the author of The Scientific 100: A Rating of the Most Influential Scientists, Past and Present, notes that he sought expert advice and peer review from medical historians while compiling the list of those included in this book of short, fact-filled biographical sketches.
Seldom is one rewarded with such a wealth of information dealing with the subjects' personal lives, along with an adequate presentation of their research or clinical contributions. The professional triumphs are described, but so are the failures, controversies, jealousies, and successes that made up their personal lives and had an impact on their medical achievements.
The author has forsaken the traditional approach of chronological progression for one of his own design, which, unfortunately, is often confusing and makes it difficult to link together the individual biographical notes for a cohesive history.
The book is divided into six chapters:
- “Compass of Western Medicine,” seven figures who represent the scope and trajectory of Western medicine (Darwin is found in this section).
- “The Principle Transformation,” individuals associated with major transformations in medical thinking (mentions Vesalius).
- “Figures of Constant Reference,” pioneers who are part of every medical curriculum (includes Freud).
- “Creating Modern Medicine,” discoveries that laid the groundwork for modern medicine.
- “Recent and Contemporary,” a sampling of current researchers (includes Bert Vogelstein).
- “Omnium—Gatherum,” a miscellaneous group from both inside and outside the medical mainstream (includes Paul deKruiff).
While readers may have strong opinions about the way the book is organized, the information on each selectee is truly encyclopedic. We learn the intimate details of their birth, childhood, family relationships, and death—literally a cascade of their lives. This is one of the real joys of reading the book; it is an outstanding resource document.
Inclusions & Omissions
While almost all of the outstanding figures in medicine are included in this volume, several who are universally recognized as giants in the biomedical field are not represented.
Thus, in spite of the incredible impact of the scientific achievements of Watson and Crick, discoverers of the double helix structure for DNA, as well as Hench and Kendall, the developers of cortisone, none of them are listed. However, biographical sketches of two of the most relevant and dedicated individuals in the field of oncology, Dr. Harold Varmus and Dr. Bert Vogelstein, are included.
The book also provides profiles of several biotechnologists who are not often included in the gallery of famous medical scientists, such as Dr. Willem Koff, the inventor of the artificial kidney; and Ramon Damadian, the developer of magnetic resonance imaging.
Mr. Simmons suggests that the absence of a true scientific basis for medical practices prior to and during the Middle Ages rendered them inappropriate or dangerous. He presents a very strong case for the thesis that it was not until the mid-1900s, when sufficient understanding of the nature of the human body and its functions was in place, that it was possible to intelligently design appropriate medical and surgical therapy.
“This well-written book describes not only the subjects' professional triumphs, but also the failures, controversies, jealousies, and successes that made up their lives and had an impact on their medical achievements.”
In summary, this well-written book, with its excellent references and index, can certainly be recommended for the shelves of medical libraries. It could also have a place as a reference volume in college and university libraries.
Despite the short form, it is a definitive source of biographical information on those individuals who not only created Western medicine, but whose contributions continue to improve it to this day.
For those practicing physicians who are interested in the history of medicine, this book would be a welcome addition to their own private collection.