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Book and Media Reviews
December 2, 2009

The Cambridge World History of Medical Ethics

JAMA. 2009;302(21):2371-2375. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1768

It took Baker and McCullough 10 years to edit The Cambridge World History of Medical Ethics, but the result is 876 pages written by the editors and by 55 other bioethics scholars and historians from around the globe. It took me a month to read the book comprehensively and critically, but this was one of the most pleasant and interesting reads I have ever had.

The editors took a unique 2-step approach to present the material, embracing an innovative literary design for the project. First, rather than treating medical ethics as begun by the 18th-century English physicians Thomas Percival and John Gregory, as most medical historians have done, they enlarged the historical concepts of the subject. They insist that, when pertinent, contributors always include material from ancient Egyptian, Hindu, Babylonian, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts as well as from the Greek philosophers of the fifth through third centuries CE. Contributors reported the concerns and reservations expressed in these historical texts by patients about their physicians and their practices. Simultaneously, they reported on the various problems that contemporary physicians dealt with concerning honor, professional decorum, know-how, religious duty, jurisprudence, and prudential judgment, all of which would now assuredly be classified as problems of medical or bioethics.

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