Of every book relating to medical history I have read thus far, my favorite and the one I most highly recommend is Jürgen Thorwald’s The Century of the Surgeon. Now, there’s a good side and a bad side to it.
The good side is that it is a very entertaining and informative read. And it doesn’t strip history into a dry list of discoveries, milestones, names, and years (certain books come to mind that I will refrain from mentioning). Thorwald presents the history via first-person narrative so that it reads like a novel, and it also gives the historical figures greater depth and personality. Thorwald creates the fictitious Mr. Hartmann, a surgeon who watches the advancements of surgery unfold throughout the nineteenth century. It starts with Hartmann witnessing his first surgical procedures, performed by none other than John Collins Warren. Hartmann is also present for the first ether operations both in America and in England (he is even invited by Liston himself!). A young Joseph Lister personally shows him through his hospital ward. An exciting description of an early heart surgery on a patient suffering from a stab wound is saved for the conclusion.
Perhaps it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach due to the detail in which some procedures are described, but I’ll toss the warning out there because the average person would consider some of the material to be graphic, and I admit there are some intense sections. Nevertheless, I still consider it a fantastic introduction that breathes much life into medical history.
The negative aspect to The Century of the Surgeon is that it is extremely difficult to find. It was first published in 1957, is currently out of print, and at the time of writing this post, the only copy of it I see for sale at Amazon costs over $500. I was fortunate enough to borrow a copy from my university’s library when I was a student. I remember waiting for my December finals to be all out of the way so I could read Century at leisure! And it was worth the wait. The sad part was returning it. And the frustrating part — trying to find my own copy.
I did manage to find a Reader’s Digest condensed version of it reaching behind some books in a public library. It was used as a mere spacer — clearly not a wanted book. So I bought it for $2. It is indeed something. Complete with a cover that creaks like a neglected door when I open it. But it simply isn’t the same, so the search continues.
For those interested in borrowing Century of the Surgeon, it is not a total impossibility. See if your local library system owns it. If not, ask about getting it through inter-library loan (I have a feeling that university libraries are more likely to own it than public libraries). I also found one ebook copy at Open Library that can be borrowed. And if it ever gets back in print — what a blessing that would be!
I was happy to learn that I’m not the only person around to recommend this book as a starting place for learning about med history. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die (and one of my favorite medical writers), gave it a thumbs-up in an interview here: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/sherwin-nuland. And I have to admit, if you can’t get your hands on Century of the Surgeon, his book Doctors: The Biography of Medicine is another excellent starting place.