Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind

(Click title to see the book cover.)
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind
Roy Porter, © 1997
W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London
831 pages

I've been reading The Greatest Benefit to Mankind for the past two weeks. Its full title is "The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity". I read it on the recommendation of a fellow history of science student, one who was particularly interested in the history of medicine. Happily, my local library had it. The book is quite a read, because it is not limited to western scientific medicine: it also looks at medicine in the ancient world, in India, in China, and among modern foraging societies. The book is divided into twenty-one chapters and an introduction:
  • The Roots of Medicine
  • Antiquity
  • Medicine and Faith
  • The Medieval West
  • Indian Medicine
  • Chinese Medicine
  • Renaissance
  • The New Science
  • Enlightenment
  • Scientific Method in the Nineteenth Century
  • Nineteenth-Century Medical Care
  • Public Medicine
  • From Pasteur to Penicillin
  • Tropical Medicine, World Diseases
  • Psychiatry
  • Medical Research
  • Clinical Science
  • Surgery
  • Medicine, State, and Society
  • Medicine and the People
  • The Past, the Present, and the Future

As you can see, it covers a wide range of topics and so is difficult to summarize. The style is readable, although quite detailed. The author was able to explain the less-familiar ideas behind Indian and Chinese medicine to my satisfaction. The book is arranged topically, and the topics themselves develop chronologically. There is a wealth of information in this book, and much of it was quite interesting personally to me. I learned, for instance, that during the Russian Civil War/October Revolution, the Bolsheviks and White Russians had to contend with an outbreak of typhus as well as their actual physical dispute. "Medicine, the State, and Society" contained a large bit about nationalized health insurance. Germany achieved a form of health insurance in the 1870s (thanks to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck), and England and France followed after the Great War. While the Progressive party promoted national health insurance in the United States, it was decried as being too "German" and being only the concern of overzealous churchmen and hysterical women. A similar drive in the US tried to take off in the late 1940s, but again was seen as too German -- even though England and France also had forms of national insurance. The author writes on the effects of privatized hospital care in the United States. The impression received of the US system is not favorable.

What this book gave me most was an interest in the develop of German universities, since most of the book is focused on the development of medicine in the United States, England, France, and Germany. I've been told by reliable sources that the German university model is the basis for most American university models. The Fount of All Knowledge says that the German model is more focused on research than education, which explains why German universities were able to contribute so much in this book.

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