Picks and Pans Review: Doctors

updated 08/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 01:00AM

by Sherwin B. Nuland

There's a remedy in this engrossing book for those patients who respect the inexact science of medicine too much as well as those who don't respect it enough. Nuland, who teaches surgery and medical history at Yale, relates the critical moments in the 2,500-year history of medicine through biographies of not only its most brilliant successes but a few of its notable failures as well. In a readable and occasionally witty style, he brings alive the personalities of the men and women who revolutionized the art of healing, from the ancient Greek Hippocrates and the rejection of the supernatural as a cause of illness to today's heart transplant specialists. In between are such physicians as Andreas Vesalius, the Renaissance doctor who painstakingly dissected cadavers to produce a landmark book on human anatomy. In 17th-century England, anatomist William Harvey, in a series of elegant experiments, "bestowed," writes Nuland, "the greatest gift ever made by one man to the science and art of medicine-the discovery of the circulation of the blood." In 1816 French physician René Laennec, frustrated when he could not examine a woman with heart disease because it was improper to put his ear to her chest, rolled a sheaf of paper into a cylinder and used it to listen to her heart, thus inventing the stethoscope. Then there was 19th-century Hungarian obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis, who argued fanatically and futilely that physicians should wash their hands in a chlorine solution to prevent a lethal infection that was transmitted by doctors during childbirth. He died in an insane asylum, reportedly beaten to death by attendants trying to restrain him. The father of modern surgery, William Stewart Halsted, who taught surgeons to control bleeding, was a cocaine and morphine addict. Helen Taussig, who nurtured the "blue babies" suffering from cyanotic heart disease in the pediatric cardiology clinic at Johns Hopkins, devised a plan to oxygenate the babies' blood. On Nov. 29, 1944, a "nine-and-one-half-pound blue-gray bundle of breathlessness" went into surgery. Baby Eileen Saxon survived, and Taussig became "certainly the best-known and most highly regarded woman physician in the world." Tying these stories together is Nuland's concern with less technical aspects of medicine: "For all the transformation wrought by the masterful new engines of medicine and by their multitudinous varieties of fuel, there is one singular ingredient of the art of healing that should not be allowed to vanish. That ingredient, so basic and so changeless, is a relationship...and it has to do with such elemental things that pass between two people as listening, and touching, and talking." (Knopf, $24.95)

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