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Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World [Hardcover]

Jacalyn Duffin
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 21, 2008 019533650X 978-0195336504 1
Modern culture tends to separate medicine and miracles, but their histories are closely intertwined. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes saints through canonization based on evidence that they worked miracles, as signs of their proximity to God. Physicianhistorian Jacalyn Duffin has examined Vatican sources on 1400 miracles from six continents and spanning four centuries. Overwhelmingly the miracles cited in canonizations between 1588 and 1999 are healings, and the majority entail medical care and physician testimony.

These remarkable records contain intimate stories of illness, prayer, and treatment, as told by people who rarely leave traces: peasants and illiterates, men and women, old and young. A woman's breast tumor melts away; a man's wounds knit; a lame girl suddenly walks; a dead baby revives. Suspicious of wishful thinking or naïve enthusiasm, skeptical clergy shaped the inquiries to identify recoveries that remain unexplained by the best doctors of the era. The tales of healing are supplemented with substantial testimony from these physicians.

Some elements of the miracles change through time. Duffin shows that doctors increase in number; new technologies are embraced quickly; diagnoses shift with altered capabilities. But other aspects of the miracles are stable. The narratives follow a dramatic structure, shaped by the formal questions asked of each witness and by perennial reactions to illness and healing. In this history, medicine and religion emerge as parallel endeavors aimed at deriving meaningful signs from particular instances of human distress -- signs to explain, alleviate, and console in confrontation with suffering and mortality.

A lively, sweeping analysis of a fascinating set of records, this book also poses an exciting methodological challenge to historians: miracle stories are a vital source not only on the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, but also on medical science and its practitioners.

Editorial Reviews


"For individual sufferers, healing and survival can be both spiritual and physical experiences. Dr. Duffin -- medical practitioner and historian -- boldly delves into a seldom-analyzed relationship between religion and medicine. Medically attested miracles are an unusual topic for research, often featured to praise or ridicule phenomena lacking scientific explanation. The author's meticulous and balanced analysis of past investigations into the miraculous coupled with her keen clinical eye will be widely read and discussed by skeptics and believers alike." --Guenter B. Risse, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Francisco

"This book is an important new study of the relationship between religion and medicine. Penned by a well-established medical scientist and modern historian, it places this relationship at the forefront of research on opens up a realm of opportunities to historians, for whom it will no doubt become a seminal work. Medievalists, too, will now have to reconsider their own work in the light of Duffin's findings."--New England Journal of Medicine

"A thoroughly engaging, daring exploration of depositions from canonization proceedings in the Vatican Archives that reveals the centrality of medical judgment and physicians' testimony in the adjudication of miracles during the past four hundred years. Rich in stories about the place and meanings of miracles in everyday life, in Duffin's hands these records offer astonishingly fresh insight into the interplay between religion and medicine and into the wider cultural power of medicine in the modern world." --John Harley Warner, Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine, Yale University

"Drawing upon Vatican canonization records, Jacalyn Duffin's study of healing miracles examines the sometimes competitive, sometimes complementary relationships between pre-modern and modern medicine and the cult of the saints. Her thorough reading of some 1,400 miracle accounts unearths patterns of spiritual healing that have been a vital part of Europeans' lives and her keen eye for detail provides welcome insights into the long-neglected story of faith and its healing potential." --Philip Soergel, Department of History, University of Maryland

"Duffin's account of the medical history of the canonization process is in many respects revelatory....Duffin's interrogation of the records is thoughtful and multilayered; the reflections in her concluding section are of special interest, because they relate to the relationship between religion, medicine, and the miracles of healing."--JAMA

"Written by a medical historian, this research is of great interest."--Pediatric Endocrinology Reviews

"This is pioneering research with great theoretical and practical interest; it should engage anyone curous about the unknown limits of human capacity."--Journal of Scientific Exploration

About the Author

Jacalyn Duffin, physician and historian, holds the Hannah Chair for the History of Medicine, Queen's University, Ontario.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019533650X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195336504
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #365,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jacalyn Duffin, M.D. (Toronto 1974), FRCP(C) (1979), Ph.D. (Sorbonne 1985), is Professor in the Hannah Chair of the History of Medicine at Queen's University in Kingston where she has taught in medicine, philosophy, history, and law for more than twenty years.

A practicing hematologist, a historian, a mother and grandmother, she has served as President of both the American Association for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine. She holds a number of awards and honours for research, writing, service, and teaching.

She is the author of five books, editor of two anthologies, and has published many research articles. Her most recent book is an analysis of the medical aspects of canonization, Medical Miracles; Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2009. It was awarded the Hannah Medal of the Royal Society of Canada in November 2009. The second expanded edition of her History of Medicine a Scandalously Short Introduction, appeared in May 2010.

Her CV and teaching profile are at

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating--a doctor studies miracles January 26, 2009
Twenty years before starting to write this book, Duffin, a hematologist, was "invited to read a set of bone marrow samples....The fourteen specimens were taken from one woman over an eighteen-month period" (p 3), a woman suffering from severe leukemia. Duffin assumed the patient had died, and that she had been asked to look over the samples for a lawsuit.

As it turned out, the patient was--and still is--very much alive. The samples were being studied by the Catholic church during the process of sainthood. Every person who was proposed for canonization had to have a required number of miracles before the process could continue. And the church needed to be sure it really was a miracle.

A good outcome was not enough for the church. Nor did a long remission count. Instead, the miracle needed to be spontaneous, and lasting. This process of canonization, which began in the 1500's, required medical doctors to agree that there was no possible scientific explanation for what had occurred.

Curious, Duffin visited the Vatican's archives and studied the miracles recorded over the past four centuries. The result of her research is this book, full of quirky facts about the miracles and the people and the doctors involved.

Take the case of Maria, who, in 1844, discovered a lump in her breast the size of a walnut. "Every day it grew bigger, harder, and more painful (p 37). The doctors insisted on an instant surgery. But her priest told her about "the cause of Paolo della for twenty days and nights, Maria prayed to the uncanonized Paolo" (p 37). On the night of Oct. 20th the lump vanished.

Some miracles are downright common, such as the incorruptibility "(preservation) or sweet odor of the corpse of a saint" (p 100).
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Miracles Do Happen October 15, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have had a longstanding interest in healing in all its many forms, and in particular apparently miraculous healings, which are usually just labeled "spontaneous remissions," "placebo responses" or "regressions to the mean." I think that this book is unique. Written by someone who is both a physician and historian at Queen's University in Ontario, she has drawn on the Vatican archives and texts from the Vatican library to critically review four centuries of testimony on the topic of "medical miracles."

The background to her research is fascinating. Over twenty years ago she was working as a hematologist and was asked to examine the medical records of a woman who was in remission from acute leukemia. She was asked to do this "blind," and it was only later that she learned that the patient's story was part of the canonization process of the first Canadian-born saint, Marie-Marguerite d'Youville. She then realized that the Vatican archives must contain medical data for healing miracles performed by every saint canonized in modern times. The Roman Catholic Church uses strict criteria for healing miracles. If there is any chance that the healing might have occurred naturally or through human intervention, then it "does not count." So independent medical opinions are recruited to rigorously analyze claims of a miracle. Not only was Dr. Duffin unaware of the nature of the case on which she was asked to consult, she was, by her own admission, both a skeptic and an atheist.

People are often surprised to learn that the Roman Catholic Church differs from many other Christian denominations in its constant evolution as new scientific discoveries are made.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"[In the face of medical miracles] medical scientists are not prepared to attribute the unknown to God . . . their discomfort also arises from a kind of faith - the absolute belief in the nontranscendence of earthly events. Like those who believe in God, they believe in the existence of a natural explanation, as yet unknown but open for discovery . . . But as Mark Corner wrote, 'there can be no certainty (since we obviously cannot anticipate what medical science will know in a century's time) that a miracle has taken place. At the same time, however, there is no certainty that a miracle has not taken place.' . . . only another form of belief sustains that interpretation" (page 189).

Behind every canonized saint in the Catholic Church (excepting martyrs) there are at least two medical miracles attributed to the prayers of the saint. This book is about the exhaustive investigations conducted by Church officials into medical miracles for canonizations of the last four hundred years.

I had two strong experiences while reading the book. (1) Wonder - My word! Miracles appear page after page with brief and end noted explanations. I had the eerie feeling that miraculous healings from the intercessions of saints were much more common than I previously thought. (2) Frustration - each miracle briefly mentioned beggars further explanation. I want to know more of the story for each miracle. However, this book is content to look over the whole breadth of 400 years of medical miracles rather than telling the personal stories of those affected.

This book is a wondrous, thought provoking read into the rather unknown scholarly world of the medical miracles associated with the canonization of Catholic saints.
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