From Publishers Weekly
Fenster, whose previous book, Ether Day, told the story of the discovery of anesthesia, here writes engagingly about the persecuted pioneers behind some of medicine's greatest achievements. Some of the people she chronicles truly did risk their lives (or those of others) with their innovations; some risked merely their reputations, fortunes or careers. All had to fight to be understood, Fenster says, in most cases because their experiments on themselves forced " the innately threatening word 'I' smack in the face of a community of medical research constructed on that more precarious word, 'we.'" Ignaz Semmelweis was shut out of maternity wards for insisting that doctors wash their hands to prevent passing deadly infections to patients. Lady Montagu used a popular Turkish method to inoculate her son with smallpox long before vaccination had even entered the minds of medical researchers in England. Paul Ehrlich was first applauded for introducing a cure to syphilis, then vilified by anti-Semites who thought he was making too much money off his discovery. These stories seem chosen to illuminate the fact that even systems like science, which is supposed to be open to new ideas, can be dangerously intractable. Other tales reveal an even darker side of medicine-many of the people who discovered crucial facts about anatomy and physiology were "flagrant vivisectionists." Fenster offers a peek into the often disturbing nexus between medicine and ego, and she isn't afraid to reveal the ambiguous successes of men like the "X-ray martyrs" whose self-experimentation led to slow, painful deaths. This book is a companion to the History Channel miniseries of the same name.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From The New England Journal of Medicine
At least since 1926, when Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters hit the best-seller lists, tales of medical discovery, detection, and invention have proved popular. Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine, written as a complement to the television miniseries of the same name, presented on the History Channel, is in this genre. This book by Julie M. Fenster, a writer and historian, consists of 20 tales grouped loosely into five sections -- "Understanding the Body," "Germ Theory," "Magic Bullets," "The Mind," and "Toward Better Surgery." The subjects included in these sections range chronologically from the work of Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, to the cloning of Dolly the sheep in the 20th. Readers interested in the history of medicine may already be well acquainted with some of the subjects, such as the discovery of the x-ray, the development of surgical anesthesia (which was the subject of an earlier book by Fenster), and the finding by Ignaz Semmelweis that hand washing by doctors could prevent childbed fever. Readers may be less familiar, however, with other subjects, such as the tale of "Typhoid Mary," the history of the cardiac pacemaker, and the story surrounding the discovery and use of streptomycin to treat tuberculosis. Among the accounts that seem especially engaging are those of Werner Forssmann's pioneering cardiac catheterization, which he performed on himself, and of the development of the heart-lung machine. In keeping with Fenster's background as a historian, the strengths of the book include its broad historical context. For example, the work of Vesalius is portrayed in relation to trends in European culture at the time, and the work of Antony van Leeuwenhoek is set against that of his contemporary and countryman -- and fellow in experimentation with lenses and lighting -- the artist Jan Vermeer. For a number of the developments Fenster recounts, she includes information on the financial support of the research, the presentation of findings in the popular media, and the ethical concerns raised by the work. The book includes some vivid storytelling, lively quotations, and nice turns of phrase, with a variety of word derivations and other interesting tidbits. Each of the tales is preceded by a photograph or an illustration that portrays the researcher or is otherwise related to the subject matter. As would be expected in a work of this historical scope, Fenster draws largely on secondary sources, rather than on primary materials. The emphasis generally is on the story, rather than the science, which the author tends to present in limited depth. Like the title Mavericks, Miracles, and Medicine: The Pioneers Who Risked Their Lives to Bring Medicine into the Modern Age, the prose in the book sometimes tends toward the breathless -- an inclination hardly new in the genre of popular science. This book may interest clinicians who are drawn to history, professors of basic science who are seeking historical perspectives to include in their teaching, young people who are hoping to pursue careers in biomedicine, and members of the general public who are interested in the field of medicine. Even in this age of television and the Internet, such printed medical tales -- generally more detailed and enduring than their counterparts in the newer media -- have a worthy place. Barbara Gastel, M.D., M.P.H.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.