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by Roy Porter (editor)
Cambridge University Press, 1996
Review by Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D. on Jun 13th 2002

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine

            Roy Porter, the recently deceased Professor of the History of Social Medicine at University College, London, was a prolific writer.  He edited this formidable book and wrote much of it as well.  Originally published in 1996, a paperback version of the text was issued last year.

            This is neither a scholarly treatise nor even a chronological account of the history of medicine, which in some ways makes the book all the more delightful.  After an introduction by Porter, there is a long chapter on the history of disease by Kenneth Kiple, a chapter on the rise of medicine by Vivian Nutton, a chapter by Porter which attempts to define disease, an excellent chapter on primary care by Edward Shorter, a chapter on medical science by Porter, a chapter on hospitals and surgery by Porter, a chapter on pharmacology’s development by Miles Weatherall, an outstanding but brief chapter on mental illness by Porter, a chapter on medicine and society by John Pickstone, and a fascinating final chapter on the future of medicine by Geoff Watts.  Each chapter is magnificently and profusely illustrated with photographs and paintings.

            Indeed, this is a beautiful book, and the illustrations are so telling that they could almost have been published without any text.  But the text is good!  These are thoughtful essays on the history of medicine which do not require a background in that field.  Each of the contributions is well written, and they fit together very well -–a tribute to Porter’s editorial skills.  There are enjoyable anecdotes scattered throughout the book.

             The only criticism I have is that this is not a comprehensive history of medicine, illustrated or not – but it does not pretend to be.  I thought more footnotes would have been helpful, and the index is very sparse at six pages.  The intriguing “Index of Medical Personalities” provides irritatingly little information.

            In total, however, this is a book I can very warmly recommend.  Historians of medicine will savor the illustrations.  It can serve as a wonderful introduction to the history of medicine for medical students, physicians, and others.

            Sadly, Porter fares no better than hundreds of his forebears in defining disease – but the effort is heroic.  This is a wonderful book!



© 2002 Lloyd A. Wells


Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He has a particular interest in philosophical issues related to psychiatry and in the logic used in psychiatric discourse.


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