The author, a Canadian physician-historian-educator, blows the dust off the shelves of medical history with this fascinating text designed for medical students, educators, and those with an interest in history of medicine. Duffin begins this survey of the history of Western medicine with a glimpse at a pedagogical tool designed to spark the interest of even the most tunnel visioned medical students: a game of heroes and villains. In the game, students choose a figure from a cast of characters selected from a gallery of names in the history of medicine.

Using primary and secondary sources, the students decide whether the figures were villains or heroes. The winner of the game is the student who first recognizes that whether a person is a villain or hero depends on how you look at it. This philosophy imbues the entire book, as this treatise is not a tired litany of dates, names and discoveries, but rather a cultural history of the various times in which medical events occurred.

The book is organized by topics which roughly follow a medical school curriculum: anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, health care delivery systems, epidemiology, hematology, physical diagnosis and technology, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and family medicine. The last chapter, entitled "Sleuthing and Science: How to Research a Question in Medical History," gives guidance to formulating a research question and searching for source material. Fifty-five black and white illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, as well as 16 tables.

Direct quotes from historical figures, such as Galen and Laennec, as well as excerpts from writings of eyewitnesses of events, anecdotes and suggestions for discussion, appear in boxes within the chapters. Many of the chapters contain discussion about the formation of professional societies. Each chapter ends with several pages of suggested readings and the third appendix delineates educational objectives for the book and individual chapters. The other two appendices list the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and tools for further study, including titles of library catalogues, and resources in print and on-line.

Although the book is a survey covering multiple eras and topics, each chapter contains choice tidbits of detail. For instance, the chapter on obstetrics and gynecology includes the story and photograph of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the mid-nineteenth century physician, surgeon and British military officer, who was discovered to be a woman at the time of her death. The impact of the stethoscope on the practice of medicine is explored in depth in the chapter, "Technology and Disease: The Stethoscope and Physical Diagnosis."


The book contains a decided emphasis on Canadian medicine, which the author acknowledges ("[The book] is unapologetically aimed at Canadians." p. 8). For example, we learn that the genetic hematologic disturbance, Christmas disease, is named after a five-year-old Canadian patient, Stephen Christmas. Each bibliography contains a separate section for Canadian resources. However, the broad scope of the book, combined with the author's enthusiasm and impressive scholarship, make it an excellent choice as a textbook for any history of Western medicine course, Canadian or not.


Univ. of Toronto Press

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