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Book and Media Reviews
February 23, 2011

Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America

JAMA. 2011;305(8):833. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.199

The history of medicine is not for the faint of heart. Often crude and sometimes brutal, medical care in the United States evolved via a series of small steps punctuated by sporadic breakthroughs. Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America tracks the gestation of medicine in the United States from 1721 to the 21st century. The transformation has been remarkable but not always pretty.

Consider, for example, Benjamin Rush. This venerable man was 1 of 5 physicians who signed the Declaration of Independence. However, he also championed “heroic therapy,” which popularized bloodletting along with forced intestinal evacuation as recommended treatment for a variety of ailments. This remedy came to be known as “bleed, blister, puke, and purge.” Rush became so enamored with calomel (mercurous chloride) that he dubbed the substance “the Samson of drugs.” Although Rush was awed by potency of calomel in cleansing the gastrointestinal tract, the author of Seeking the Cure, general surgeon Ira Rutkow, offers a different view: “This drug degraded in the gut into highly poisonous and irritative components that brought about volcanic vomiting and explosive evacuation of the bowels.” The story of Rush suggests 2 lessons. First, tradition typically trumps evidence (or lack thereof). Second, strong personalities and eccentric characters are as influential as wars, epidemics, and economic conditions in fueling or retarding medical progress.