First published in 1991, and available in reprint edition, this is a compendium of selected artworks and excerpts of diverse medical and literary writings from pre-Hippocratic times to the end of the 20th C. Each chapter integrates selections from medical or scientific treatises, with commentaries written by historians, essays by physicians and writers, and prose and poetry by physicians and by patients. The 235 images in this book include illustrations from medical textbooks and manuscripts, as well as cartoons, sculptures, paintings, prints and sketches. The colour illustrations are stunning and copious, and provide a visual narrative that resonates with each chapter of the book.

The first part of the book, Traditional Medicine, includes chapters on Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment medicine. These serves as a preamble for the second part, Modern Medicine, which includes art, medicine and literature from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century.

The chapter “From the Patient’s Illness to the Doctor’s Disease” illustrates the rise of public health and scientific research with excerpts from works by Edward Jenner, John Collins Warren, René Laënnec, and John Snow, together with experience of epidemic diseases described by writer Heinrich Heine in his essay on “Cholera in Paris”. The chapter on “Non-Western Healing Traditions” includes botanical research by Edward Ayensu, a short story by Lu Hsun and the writing and paintings of George Caitlin on North American Indian healing.

In the patient-focused chapter, “Patient Visions: The Literature of Illness,” are stories of sickness by Thomas DeQuincey, Leo Tolstoy, Giovanni Verga, Katherine Mansfield, André Malraux, and Robert Lowell. The chapter which follows, “Scientific Medicine: the Literature of Cure,” provides the medical counterpoint with personal correspondence by Freud, medical treatises by Wilhelm Roentgen and Louis Pasteur, an essay on surgical training by William Halsted, and an excerpt from George Bernard Shaw's play, Too True to Be Good, in which a microbe takes centre-stage.

There are chapters on “Medicine and Modern War,” which includes personal writing by nurses Florence Nightingale and Emily Parsons, and poems by Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, and “Art of Medicine,” with works by Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Sexton, James Farrell and W.P. Kinsella.

The final chapter, “The Continuing Quest for Knowledge and Control,” contains no medical treatises but rather ends with personal reflections by the writer Paul Monette on AIDS, and by physician-writers, John Stone, Sherwin B. Nuland, Lewis Thomas, Dannie Abse, and Richard Selzer.


This readable, visually beautiful book is a thoughtful survey of the evolution of the “inescapable triangular relationship between healer, patient and illness,” over several millennia in the Western tradition, with due deference to other healing traditions in the Middle and Far East. By combining excerpts from medical texts with contemporaneous literary works along with scholarly commentary and visual images, the authors are able to explore the history, art and science of medical theory and practice. The book is useful to medical students, healthcare providers, and patients interested in sampling visual and textual narratives about diseases, doctors and patients across centuries.



Copyright 1991

Primary Source

Available through The Metropolitan Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on-line stores


Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc.

Place Published

New York


Beaux Arts Edition

Page Count