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The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity Hardcover – April, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0393046342 ISBN-10: 0393046346 Edition: 1st

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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: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.

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Customer Reviews

I tried so hard to enjoy this book but it's so tediously dense.
Arash Taleghani
As someone with an interest in history and by vocation a surgeon, I found Roy Porter's book a delightfully instructive volume to read.
David Graham
Porter has a very good-natured and readable style of writing though and I really enjoyed it.
A. Woodley

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Mark Graham on May 15, 2014
Format: Paperback
During my time studying medicine I constantly found myself skipping between books, unable to locate all the historical information I was seeking in one volume. Would that I had "The Greatest Benefit to Mankind" back then! It seems that Roy Porter's students had the same issue which is what inspired the teacher-turned-author to write this book.

Porter's historical account of medicine and healing is fascinating and delves deep to reveal how people's attitudes toward medicine has changed over the years, including the big breakthroughs. While the book covers a global history, it is primarily European - which is explained by the fact that "Western medicine has developed in ways which made it uniquely powerful and... uniquely global." Sounds a bit like the power of imperialism...

The book is a refreshing read and is certainly anything but boring. His tone is comical, engaging, enlightening, and that of a lecturer all at once. Porter has structured his work perfectly and the chapter titles give you the option to quickly look up what you need to know if you're in a hurry. Perfect if you're a student! If you are simply interested in medical history this is a must-read, but be sure to also look at Sexuality: An Illustrated History.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By David Graham on August 2, 1998
Format: Hardcover
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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39 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A. Woodley on January 8, 2001
Format: Paperback
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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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Ryan Johnson on July 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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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