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The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity [Hardcover]

by Roy Porter
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 1998 0393046346 978-0393046342 1
In a rare blend of erudition and entertainment, Roy Porter charts the revolutionary history of medicine, our most beneficial science. Throughout history medicine has advanced ever faster, and with it a capacity not just to overcome sickness, but to transform the nature of life itself. From the diseases of the hunter-gatherers to today's threat of AIDS and ebola, from the clearly defined conviction of the Hippocratic oath to the muddy ethical dilemmas of modern-day medicine, this book affords us an opportunity as never before to assess the culture and science of medicine and its costs and benefits to mankind. Porter explores medicine's evolution against the backdrop of the wider religious, scientific, philosophical, and political beliefs of the culture in which it develops, and shows how our need to understand where diseases come from and what we can do to control them has--perhaps above all else--inspired developments in medicine through the ages. Along the way the book offers up a treasure trove of historical surprises, such as an ancient Egyptian treatment for incipient baldness, a mysterious epidemic that devastated Athens and brought an end to its domination, and the role of the lemon in defeating Napoleon. This book promises to be the standard single-volume work on its subject for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews Review

Samuel Johnson once called the medical profession "the greatest benefit to mankind." In the 20th century, the quality of that benefit has improved more and more rapidly than at any other comparable time in history. With all the capabilities of modern medicine's practicioners, however, we as a people are as worried about our health as ever.

Roy Porter, a social historian of medicine the London's Wellcome Institute, has written an dauntingly thick history of how medical thinking and practice has risen to the challenges of disease through the centuries. But delve into its pages, and you'll find one marvelous bit of history after another. The obvious highlights are touched upon--Hippocrates introduces his oath, Pasteur homogenizes, Jonas Salk produces the polio vaccine, and so on--but there's also Dr. Francis Willis's curing of The Madness of King George, W. T. G. Morton's hucksterish use of ether in surgery, and research on digestion conducted using a man with a stomach fistula (if you don't know what that means, you may not want to know). Porter is straightforward about his deliberate focus on Western medical traditions, citing their predominant influence on global medicine, and with The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, he has produced a volume worthy of that tradition's legacy.

From Library Journal

Porter examines what healers have done and the impact of their ideas and actions. His focus is on Western medicine "because Western medicine has developed in ways which made it uniquely powerful and...uniquely global." (LJ 2/15/98)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393046346
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393046342
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #423,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Medical History in One Volume August 2, 1998
Until recently, when asked by his students for an up-to-date, readable, one-volume history of medicine, Roy Porter was at a loss of what to recommend. He therefore decided to bridge the gap, so to speak, and undertake this momentous task himself. In so far as it is possible for someone to adequately accomplish this Herculean task of being both comprehensive and somewhat concise (the material is indeed covered in one volume, though 831 pages long), Roy Porter has succeeded.
Porter has an eye for the unusual, spicing up his reporting with examples of odd concoctions and practices used for various maladies down through the ages, such as the use of pulverized crocodile dung, various herbs, and honey as a contraceptive pessary among the ancient Egyptians, or the English resistance against legal revisions (including town sewer reform among other things) attempting to fight cholera in the 19th century: "We prefer to take our chances with cholera and the rest rath! er than be bullied into health," reported THE TIMES. Most refreshingly, he is not timid in rendering pronouncements for both good and ill on the medical profession, bringing a candor needed to assess the impact of medicine down through the ages. He is thorough without being tedious, educational without being pedantic, and has a fine eye for comedy without being flippant.
As someone with an interest in history and by vocation a surgeon, I found Roy Porter's book a delightfully instructive volume to read. I look forward to returning to peruse it many times in the years ahead.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark for historical writing July 17, 2000
This book delievers what it was written to deliever. It wasn't meant to be a brain candy, witty, clever, majestic, novel that makes the common person rush out to apply to medical school. It is going to seem "boring" if you don't want to LEARN about THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE. An excellent book preceding this to read would be "Guns, Germs, and Steel," by Jared Diamond to put things in a solid historical reality. This book is five stars, but be ready to engage yourself with the text, buy a highlighter if it helps you concentrate, go back to college, pretend you need to get an A in the History of Western Medicine, because you will have an A+ perspective on medicine if you keep the correct perspective regarding this book.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More a European History January 8, 2001
This is the second review of three I have done of socio-medical histories written of edited by Roy Porter (you can read the others on my reivew page). I read and compared this to The "Cambridge Illustrated History: Medicine", and "Gout, the Patrician Maladay". I thought this was the best approach as people might be like me, looking for a reference work to buy and trying to toss up between which one to get and what the advantages and disadvantages of one over another.
In terms of content I think this is the more comprehensive of the two general reference works. It is over twice the length of Cambridge (over 800 pages in this one compared to not quite 400). It also doesn't have pages taken up with illustrations as Cambridge does. That is probably the thing I like least about this book, there are only three small sections in the middle with some black and white pictures reproduced - I think on comparison I do prefer the slightly more expensive version of having pictures on the pages I am reading for this kind of reference work.
The book is divided into 22 chapters which follow the rise of Western medicine more or less chronologically. There are also chapters included on Chinese and Indian Medicine, but expect the emphasis to be European in both history and development. Each chapter is divided into specific topics which are discussed a structure I quite enjoyed as it broke up the text and made it more readable.
I looked up some specific subjects to compare this with the Cambrige work and in each case (among them Purperal fever, Galen, Resurrectionists) this book had far more detailed and comprehensive explanations, often citing broad statistics. However writing the a social and medical history of mankind is difficult to do full justice even in 800-some pages.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful book on the social aspects of medicine October 16, 2004
This book is a very pleasant and worth reading. It provokes the reader almost on every page because the author was one of the most thoughtful scholars and professors of history of medicine. This masterpiece presents the reader with a very sharp and honest description of the origins and development of Western medicine, obscure and not as heroic or mytical as some would like to believe. This book remits the reader to key questions about the frailty of human health and the stablishment of medicine as science late in human history. The author's style is definitely thought provoking and may be disturbing to some that would prefer to think of Medicine not as a coordinate social struggle preventing and fighting disease with weapons like penicillin, a drug no more than fifty-years old, but maybe rather as an extremely high-tech panacea. Medicine, regardless its Western or Oriental basis, relays upon clever, respectful and humble physicians preventing maladies and treating patients and their suffering, not only diseases.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Encyclopedic Tome
This book is an encyclopedic, thorough excursion into the history of medicine. It deftly describes how western medicine evolved from primitive heroic techniques, guides us through... Read more
Published 7 months ago by anisotropies
4.0 out of 5 stars Good reference text
Wouldn't buy as a pleasure read, but has come in handy when I need concise background on a specific disease.
Published 12 months ago by Matthew M. Nelson
5.0 out of 5 stars Book for Medical Students
Let's be honest, most of the people go to become a medical doctor because they want to secure their expensive lively hood.
And it takes many years of grinding at the school. Read more
Published 13 months ago by sekua
3.0 out of 5 stars Be prepared for a slog
I bought this book as something to read in the summer preceding my induction into medical school. Had I known better, I probably would have picked up some throwaway spy novel... Read more
Published on August 19, 2011 by hoot504
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Benefit to Your Personal Well-Being ...
... will probably be the development of your biceps from holding this ponderous tome in front of your eyes for the several months that it may take you to finish it! Read more
Published on June 7, 2010 by Giordano Bruno
3.0 out of 5 stars Western medicine and its discontents
As some others have said, this is slow reading. My main point, though, is that the author seems to think that Western medicine is hardly more valid than any of the other... Read more
Published on April 4, 2010 by D. Harris
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional utility in sorting out the field
There are happily a good many excellent historians of medicine, as reviewing the few good journals will bear out. Read more
Published on April 26, 2009 by William Haning
5.0 out of 5 stars Though Roy is gone, his memory lives on
Roy has an erudite style and a level of detail that makes this book both a joy to read and a reference to use frequently. Read more
Published on February 22, 2007 by Brian A. Clarke
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the Best History of Medicine
This wonderful book by Roy Porter is simply the best available history of medicine. It is long and detailed, as befits a huge topic. Read more
Published on November 27, 2006 by LondonVisits
5.0 out of 5 stars My Best Buy this year!
This is a magnificent overview of the history of disease and medicine from antiquity to the modern age. Read more
Published on August 9, 2005 by H. Baltussen
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