The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease – by Michael Bliss

Terri Schlichenmeyer/The Book Worm

c.2011, University of Chicago Press $18 /$21.95 Canada 104 pages, includes index

For every action, as they say, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Take, for instance, what happens if you twist your ankle. If you can walk, you’ll probably favor the injured side and pretty soon, your hip is achy. You gingerly rest your hip and your back starts to pinch. Put pillows behind your back and your shoulders begin to hurt.

What a headache.

Everything in your body is connected, so it should come as no surprise that medicine is, too. In the new book The Making of Modern Medicine by Michael Bliss, you’ll read about some surprising medical threads.

Dr. William Osler, newly-appointed professor at McGill University in Canada, was stymied – and worried. One of his first patients was obviously suffering from smallpox, and there was little the young physician could do. It was 1874, and while vaccines had been around for decades and smallpox was preventable, actual cases had no cure. The best Osler could do for his patient was pray.

Nine years later, a conductor on a Montreal-to-Chicago Pullman car felt a little ill and sought out a doctor. He was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox and, after a bit of a run-around, was sent to a hospital.

But it was already too late. Highly contagious, the disease spread and soon, Montreal was besieged by a full-blown epidemic. By fall, citizens were “literally dying in the streets” and other nations began to notice.

So, of course, did Osler, who later wrote about the epidemic in a textbook.

The son of a minister cum-physician, Osler was viewed as an up-and-comer by his peers and was, around the time of the Montreal epidemic, appointed to position of chair of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, he became head of medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore (in 1889), where he encouraged a young physician named Harvey Cushing to experiment with surgery as cure and as care for his patients.

Cushing’s bold trials worked and changed the lives of many sufferers, but despite his willingness to push the medical envelope, he was somewhat short-sighted. On the day after he wrote a letter saying that thyroid disorders were the only diseases successfully treated with “glandular administration,” a researcher at the University of Toronto discovered a treatment for diabetes in animals which lead to “spectacular results” in human patients – something that William Osler had predicted 13 years before.

The Making of Modern Medicine is so slender a volume – at 104 pages including notes – that one could almost call it a hardcover pamphlet.

But don’t let its size fool you. Author Michael Bliss packs plenty of delight into his book, taking a somewhat common subject and making it spark with little-known stories and I-didn’t-know-that facts. That makes this one of the more refreshing and accessible takes on early medicine that I’ve seen in a long time.

If you work in the medical field or are curious about healthcare history, you’ll enjoy this book. For you, finding The Making of Modern Medicine is your next best action.