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Books, Journals, New Media
September 20, 2000

Medical Millennium: The Medical Millennium: 1000 Pioneers Who Have Contributed to the Development of Medicine Over the Last 1000 Years

Author Affiliations
 

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media

 

Not Available

JAMA. 2000;284(11):1445-1446. doi:10.1001/jama.284.11.1445-JBK0920-4-1

This slender volume consists of one- and two-sentence descriptions of 1000 "men and women who have made an especially notable contribution to medical advances" over the past 1000 years. Photographs of approximately one in ten are included.

When I considered how to evaluate this compendium, two questions occurred. First, what were the selection criteria? Second, what was included for those who were chosen? I found little to be critical of regarding who was included—almost everybody who was anybody, including all the Nobel laureates in medicine. I selected five reasonably well-known names off the top of my head: Paracelsus, Walter Reed, William Osler, Joseph Lister, and Ignaz Semmelweis. Each is featured, and each person's reference accurately gives his complete name and life dates. But the brief description that follows seems cursory. That brevity is my chief criticism of this work.

Speaking from my own knowledge, without consulting any other works, I thought it might have been worthwhile including, about the above five physicians, for example, that Paracelsus was the first to describe the effect of ether on chickens and to postulate that it might be useful for anesthesia; that Reed's theories on the transmission of yellow fever by mosquitoes were proven on volunteer soldiers; that Osler was also a classical scholar and was elected president of the British Classical Association; that Lister, in addition to introducing antisepsis, began use of chromicized catgut suture; and that Semmelweis failed to gain due recognition in his lifetime for his work on puerperal fever because he did not publish his observations when he made them. (This was also true of Crawford Long for anesthesia.)

In medical history I'm an amateur, although fairly well read. For interest and contrast, I pulled off my library shelf three volumes to compare with this book. First was Garrison's 1914 History of Medicine, which, cites more than 1300 persons but of course does not include most 20th century scientists or Nobel laureates. But even with only a few sentences given to each person, Garrison cites major publications for most subjects and is more informative and readable than most other works. The alphabetical compilation of scientists in Jablonski's Dictionary of Syndromes and Eponymic Diseases (second edition, 1991) gives life dates and also cites the publications that brought fame to its subjects. The huge Columbia Encyclopedia (single-volume fifth edition, 1993, more than 3000 pages)has thousands of short biographies of various figures. I found each of the five doctors mentioned above, with descriptions that were far more complete, including their dates and major publications.

In fairness, among the 1000 physicians that author Helen Lee cites were many I did not find in Garrison, Jablonski, or the Columbia Encyclopedia. So in one sense, Lee has achieved the goal stated in the foreword: "I trust that this volume will provide an interesting and useful resource and an aide-memoire for all those interested in the practice and history of medicine." She also writes, "I welcome suggestions for a future—and enlarged—edition." I have three.

First, give longer descriptions for each person. Second, cite the major published work for each. Finally—perhaps unavailable for some subjects, but extant for many, I am sure—cite a good biography, for readers who wish delve further into the lives of these individuals, most of whom are rightly famous.

If you want a lightweight reference work that gives you names, dates, and a two-sentence hook to hang them on, this is a good one. But if you're looking for a point of departure to learn more about the life and work of important physicians, The Medical Millennium won't fill the bill.

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