The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present

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9780002151733: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present

Roy Porter’s brilliant new book immediately becomes upon publication the standard work on the history of medicine. It is also, characteristically, a joy to read.

Medicine advances ever faster, and with it not just a capacity to overcome sickness, but to transform the very nature of life. Starting in ancient Antiquity, Roy Porter’s magnum opus charts how this health revolution came about and how life for human beings in the West has ceased, in Hobbes’ memorable phrase, to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Porter plots the growth of medical specialisms – pharmacology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, bacteriology – and the institutions of medicine – the hospital and asylum – to show how medical advances have often created as many problems as they have solved.

The book is also a treasure trove of historical surprises: Porter shows how the ancient Egyptians treated incipient baldness with a mixture of hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, goose, snake and ibex fat; how a mystery epidemic devastated ancient Athens and brought to an end the domination of that great city; and how lemons did as much as Nelson to defeat Napoleon.

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Review:

Samuel Johnson once called the medical profession "the greatest benefit to mankind." In the 20th century, the quality of that benefit has improved more and more rapidly than at any other comparable time in history. With all the capabilities of modern medicine's practitioners, however, we as a people are as worried about our health as ever.

Roy Porter, a social historian of medicine at London's Wellcome Institute, has written a dauntingly thick history of how medical thinking and practice has risen to the challenges of disease through the centuries. But delve into its pages and you'll find one marvellous piece of history after another. The obvious highlights are touched upon--Hippocrates introduces his oath, Pasteur homogenises, Jonas Salk produces the polio vaccine and so on--but there's also Dr. Francis Willis' curing of the madness of King George III, W.T.G. Morton's aggressive use of ether in surgery and research on digestion conducted using a man with a stomach fistula (if you don't know what that means, you may not want to know). Porter is straightforward about his deliberate focus on Western medical traditions, citing their predominant influence on global medicine, and with The Greatest Benefit to Mankind he has produced a volume worthy of that tradition's legacy.

Review:

‘A superb book – fluent, lucid, scary and even funny...essential reading.’ Sunday Times

‘Magnificently erudite and compellingly humane.’ New Statesman (Books of the Year)

‘Yet another compulsively readable, astonishingly encyclopaedic book from Roy Porter...his best to date: an epic, one-volume narrative history of man’s struggle with the infirmities of his body, from Aesculapius to AIDS.’ Simon Schama

‘Whether you are interested in the advent of the stethoscope, the history of yellow fever, the bubonic plague or, closer to home, coronary heart disease, the feminist influence on medicine, drug abuse, childbearing or cancer, this book provides the historic background to these and other medical questions...”The Greatest Benefit to Mankind” is a first-class introduction to medical history. Like a well constructed broadsheet leader, it excites thought and discussion, as well as providing many answers.’ The Times

‘Hypochondriac heaven – a gripping, scholarly, fact-packed, must-have book.’ Daily Mail

‘A monumental work... magnificent.’ Independent on Sunday

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Porter, Roy
Published by Harpercollins (1997)
ISBN 10: 0002151731 ISBN 13: 9780002151733
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Porter, Roy
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ISBN 10: 0002151731 ISBN 13: 9780002151733
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