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Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine Paperback – June 17, 2004

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393325690 ISBN-10: 0393325695 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Some histories are simply too long for a short treatment, as this engaging but cursory volume demonstrates. Each chapter takes on various subtopics in the history of Western medicine: disease, doctors, the body, the laboratory, therapies, surgery, the hospital, and medicine and modern society. Porter, who died in 2002, cleverly uses this scheme to discuss major developments in rough chronological order: for example, in "The Body," he explains that important advances in anatomy preceded the evolution of the modern laboratory. The book derives from lectures in the social history of medicine that he gave at Wellcome Institute at University College, London. Even on the printed page he maintains a conversational tone that makes the topic wholly accessible. And his sometimes incisive observations go beyond the purely medical: "politicians... have been able to look to improved health care as a carrot to dangle before the electorate. Votes were to be had not just in bread and circuses but in beds and surgery." But too often such social analysis is sidelined by a rapid-fire recitation of dates, practitioners' names and fleeting references to their contributions. Porter clearly knew and loved his subject, but he could not bring himself to part with some of the trees to paint a clearer picture of the forest.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

The death of Roy Porter at the age of 55 years in early 2002 was a grievous loss for both the scholarly community and the general public. One of the most prolific historians of his generation, Porter wrote and edited about 80 books. In a world of specialization, he was an exception. His first book dealt with the history of geology; subsequently, his attention shifted to 18th-century medicine and the history of psychiatry. But he never was confined by period or subject. In 1994 he published London: A Social History (London: Hamish Hamilton), which was followed three years later by The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins), an 800-page tome that spanned the centuries from the ancient Greeks to the present. Porter was also a catalyst; he encouraged scholars to ask novel questions and to examine untraditional sources. His works on 18th-century medicine and his emphasis on the need to understand patients as well as physicians opened new horizons. Beyond his scholarly activities, he reached a broad audience through public lectures and radio and television appearances. His dynamic personality, his humor, and his sense of irony appealed to both scholars and the general public. Blood and Guts -- a brief book, running to fewer than 60,000 words -- originated in lecture courses given at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. In breathtaking and fearless fashion, Porter surveys Western medicine from antiquity to the present. The history of medicine, he suggests, is not synonymous with the history of physicians. On the contrary, the subject involves complex interactions of human beings, disease patterns, and healers set within societies and cultures that each have their own unique beliefs. The chapters cover such topics as disease patterns, healers, the investigation of the body, the emergence of the biomedical model of disease, therapeutics, surgery, and the hospital. Nowhere was change linear; heated debates invariably accompanied theory, practice, and discussions dealing with appropriate institutional and structural forms of medicine. In the final chapter Porter assesses the broad sociopolitical and economic implications of the health care industry, which in the United States now accounts for about 15 percent of the gross domestic product yet leaves about 40 million persons without insurance coverage. Although the evolution of medical thinking and practice occurred in an international setting, Porter emphasizes national differences as well as similarities. In Britain, for example, the National Insurance Act of 1911 and the founding of the National Health Service in 1948 ensured that primary care would remain in the hands of generalist family physicians, whose role was to be gatekeepers for hospitals and specialists. In the United States, by contrast, general practice lost out to specialism. In both nations, medical care, increasingly driven by bureaucracy and technology, helped to undermine the element of trust between patient and doctor, thus contributing to the revitalization of alternative medicine. By the end of the 20th century, for example, there were more registered alternative healers in Britain than general practitioners; in the United States there were 425 million visits to providers of unconventional therapy, as compared with 388 million visits to primary care physicians. In such an inclusive and brief book, inevitably some statements are open to challenge. Porter repeats the familiar claim that diseases of affluence, such as cancer and coronary heart disease, result from Western lifestyles that include fatty diets, junk foods, cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. The data supporting such a claim, however, are less than persuasive. With the exception of the connection between lung cancer and smoking, the cause of most cancers remains unknown. Similarly, the relation between coronary heart disease and risk factors is at best murky. Deaths from coronary heart disease rose sharply during the first half of the 20th century, when most of the risk factors mentioned were absent, and fell dramatically in the second half, when they peaked. Porter also repeats the famous statement attributed to Surgeon General William Stewart in 1969 that the war against infectious disease had been won. Stewart never made such a statement, even though many persist in attributing it to him. Those who are knowledgeable about the history of medicine will find relatively little that is new in this brief book, but Blood and Guts is a delightful and informative introduction to an important subject by one of the outstanding scholars of his generation. The book may even lead some readers to follow up by reading Porter's magisterial work, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. Gerald N. Grob, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393325695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393325690
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #184,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Mark Graham on July 15, 2014
Format: Paperback
Step into the grisly world of historical medical care with Roy Porter's "Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine". This book focuses on the struggle of humans throughout time to defy nature and stay alive in spite of diseases and injuries.

In this book, Porter explores the role of doctors throughout history, including the transformation from ancient healer to medical professional. "Blood and Guts" also delves into the development of prescription drugs and their role in helping the public. Each chapter takes on a different topic related to the history of medicine.

This book is somewhat comparable to Sander Gilman's Sexuality: An Illustrated History based on their collections of illustrations and in-depth knowledge. The conversational tone of the material makes "Blood and Guts" accessible, and it offers unique observations. The only downside to this book could be that you will want access to more details as some information flies by too quickly.

Porter has been known for his public lectures and appearances on television, making him a great person to tell this story. His natural sense of humor shines through easily, and chooses layman's terms over jargon.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In a sense this is a "lite" version of the late Roy Porter's well-received history of medicine from 1997, entitled The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. He is also the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine (1996) and was until his death professor of social history at University College London.

But let's face it, the history of medicine has not been a pretty story, nor could it have been. Most of history's physicians were flailing about in the dark, the surgeons as sawbones and barbers performing crude amputations and such without the aid of either anaesthetics or disinfectants, the practitioners as faith healers and quacks, dispensing placebos or poisons often without knowing which was which. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the medical profession began to achieve some understanding of the real causes of illness and indeed understand how living things work and how and why they don't work. Porter recalls some of the controversies about working with cadavers, and arguments about the causes of infectious disease: an argument made difficult because how microbes figured in disease was only beginning to be understood during the time of Pasteur.

Porter outlines this sobering story from the time of the Greeks to the present day in an objective and easily assimilated style. He organizes the material into eight chapters focusing on Disease, Doctors, The Body, The Laboratory, Therapies, Surgery, The Hospital, and Medicine in Modern Society. Along the way he delves into the politics (some sexual) and into the sociology of medicine around the globe. There are suggestions for Further Reading and an Index.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Tanner on January 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I got this one because I love obscure history and it does not disappoint. Be warned the book is aptly named. It is gristly albeit fascinating. Starting with diseases and ending with modern medicine Porter takes you step by step chronologically through almost all aspects related to healing. He leaves no gall stone unturned (sorry.. couldn't help it.) He does at times get carried away with his terminology, but the book is surprisingly accessible. The author is able to convey the importance of discoveries by setting up what conditions were like before those discoveries were made. Notably some that we take for granted, like the finding and use of vitamins and antibiotics. Quick, enjoyable and well worth getting. This is something I look forward to reading again soon.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Porter provides a short, readable history of Western medicine in this soothingly small book. He uncovers the roots of the medical hegemony, clarifying historical origins of basic assumptions in modern medicine. The author's British perspective provides American students with needed background to understand that the modern concept of scientific, impersonal medicine is very recent indeed. Plenty of facts are woven into the text along with interesting historical prints. A pleasure to read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Sergio A. Salazar Lozano on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
First of all, this book is an easy read. Now, don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean the book is not worth reading it, this means just that the author uses a lay language, not much profundity, and this is a short book (specially short for a history of medicine). Anyway, Porter's book treats every epoch in medicine history, if you don't intend to spend much time reading about medicine history, well, this is your book, it's complete, concise and comprehensibly.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Wayne A. Smith VINE VOICE on April 12, 2012
Format: Paperback
This book is informative and accessible. For the non-clinician, it gives a very good history of the development of the field of medicine, broadly construed.

I've always kept in mind that physicians killed George Washington by bleeding him, the established practice of the day to rid the body of the "bad humors" that were thought to cause illness. Much of the history of the development of medicine focuses on many wrong ideas and false starts with the occasional beneficial treatment or practice stumbled upon and largely misunderstood. For much of history, healing was a matter of luck that was enhanced for those who avoided physicians or hospitals.

This little gem of a book traces the development of surgery, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and the like over the last couple of thousand years to the present. It also discusses modern practices and the reader will certainly come away thankful that they live in an age where some of the body's functions and chemistry are understood enough to make a trip to the hospital on the whole a good risk, rather than the life threatening experience it was up until the modern era.
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