Book Book

Great Feuds in Medicine: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 01 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:519
  1. Bernard Knight, emeritus professor of forensic pathology
  1. University of Wales College of Medicine

    Hal Hellman

    Embedded Image

    John Wiley and Sons, £17.95, pp 237

    ISBN 0 471 34757 4

    Rating: Embedded Image Embedded Image

    Progress in science and medicine is often accompanied by controversy, especially over claims to priority in publication, but some researchers seem to have had an antipathy born of pure professional jealousy. Hal Hellman has picked 10 from a large field, covering a timespan from William Harvey in the 17th century, right up to Gallo and Montagnier's dispute over HIV at the end of the 20th.

    Perhaps few realise that Harvey's classic treatise on the circulation of the blood was banned by the censors in Britain and had to be published in Germany, which reflects the depth of hostility that he faced from the medical establishment in London. He expected trouble even before he wrote his book and had to fight doggedly against the “Galenic brigade” for 20 years. At least he avoided the fate of some continental medical pioneers of the same era, who were burned at the stake.

    Other workers who made momentous progress suffered a variety of problems. Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian obstetrician who dramatically reduced the death rate from puerperal infections in the main Viennese teaching hospital by getting medical students to wash their hands, was reviled by many colleagues, was dismissed from his post, and eventually ended up in a mental hospital. Claude Bernard, the father of modern physiology, was reviled by almost everyone for his largescale vivisection and was even disowned by his family.

    The author suggests that sometimes the feuding was based on national rivalries, such as that between the Spaniard Ramon y Cajal and the Italian Camillo Golgi, who disputed for years over the structure of the neurone, though both made vital advances in neuro-anatomy. The American Robert Gallo and the Frenchman Luc Montagnier wrangled over the true identity of the HIV virus throughout the 1980s.

    The 1962 Nobel prize was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for their elucidation of the DNA molecule. Four years earlier, Rosalind Franklin died of cancer, but if she had lived, the Nobel adjudicators might have had a difficult problem, as the prize is never awarded to more than three people; her contribution in the field of crystallography had been vital, but personal antipathy to Maurice Wilkins had soured the whole epic.

    Among the other controversies, Hellman gives much space to Sigmund Freud, who seemed to have disagreed with most of the psychiatric establishment in Europe, including Carl Jung, Breuer, and Moll. Hellman seems unsure whether Freud enjoyed or suffered from the endless jousting with people who began as friends and ended as enemies.

    Of the more modern feuds, Jonas Salk versus Albert Sabin is a classic, the great argument being whether the most efficacious vaccine for poliomyelitis contained a killed or a debilitated virus. Both men's work saved countless thousands of lives, but neither received a Nobel prize nor were they reconciled to each other.

    This is an interesting book, as much for the information it provides on the work and discoveries of many men—and one woman—as on the actual feuding between them.

    View Abstract