Book Book

Medicine's 10 Greatest Discoveries

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 07 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:389
  1. Christopher Lawrence, reader in the history of medicine
  1. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London

    Meyer Friedman, Gerald W Friedland

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    Yale University Press, £19.95, pp 320

    ISBN 0 300 07598 7

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    Meyer Friedman is described on the jacket of this book (and presumably describes himself) as “the discoverer of Type A behavior and its relation to heart disease.” This description seems to sum up the philosophy underlying the volume: that is, individuals make discoveries on a once and for all basis. But, that there is a type A behaviour is not universally agreed, a fact suggesting that, besides individual creativity, discoveries are things made over time, needing the assent of a relevant community. Thus, when the authors write that the 17th century Dutchman Antony Leeuwenhoek was the “discoverer of bacteria” they fail to take account of the fact that it required the creation of a community of biologists in the 19th century before the faintest conception of bacteria could exist. Bacteria are as much a bundle of concepts as they are things seen through a microscope.

    This work belongs to an old and largely discredited genre which contains innumerable books and essays that traverse the same ground in the same way. It is hard to see why the University Press at Yale (an institution with a distinguished department of the history of medicine) would lend its name to another one. Friedman and Friedland trade in some of the oldest and most hackneyed metaphors. For example, their 10 male discoverer-heroes confront nature in a sexual relationship: some undefined “it,” presumably research, “was their mistress they passionately loved.” Most of the usual suspects are here—Vesalius, Harvey, Leeuwenhoek, Jenner, Roentgen, Fleming—and some less likely ones—Crawford Long (an early experimenter with anaesthesia), Ross Harrison (who worked on tissue culture), Nikolai Anichkov (a student of cholesterol), and Maurice Wilkins (for his work on DNA).

    The usual villains are here too. One of the reasons for the failure of anatomy to flourish before the Renaissance was, we are told, “the writings of Galen.” Andreas Vesalius, author of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), is described here (in another metaphor suggesting the masculinity of science) as the figure who “slashed his way through what previously had been an unexplored anatomical jungle.” Now, Vesalius's work is an astonishing anatomical achievement and a wonderful tribute to Renaissance book production, but it is inconceivable without Galen. Galen was a brilliant descriptive anatomist, especially of bones and muscles. It was from Galen that Vesalius learned that dissection was the royal road to anatomical knowledge, and, more importantly, Galen's works were the maps that enabled Vesalius to find his way round the body at all He could see what he saw (including that the map itself was sometimes inaccurate) only because he had a guide to lead him through the “jungle.”

    For the same reason, Leeuwenhoek could not have seen “bacteria” but only (using his 17th century conceptual spectacles) what he called “little animals.” There are much better books about medicine, discovery, and disease than this.

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