I decided, given the variation in literature available, to read and review three books on medicine by Roy Porter at once. They are this one, The Cambridge Illustrated History: Medicine
, as well as The Greatest Benefit of Mankind
and Gout, the Patrician Maladay
. I thought this was the best approach as people might be looking for a reference work to buy and trying to toss up between which one to get and what the advantages and disadvantages of buying one of these would be, for the first two of these, at least. I read "Gout" because it offered a view of Porter's work in a more focussed subject in contrast with the two other generalised works.
The Cambridge History is divided into ten chapters, four of which have been written by Porter himself (he is editor of the whole book). Each chapter is independent of the others and follows one quite broad topic. This means you might read over the same historical period in more than one chapter. The subjects include 'History of Disease', 'Rise in Medicine', 'Hospitals'.
The great advantage of this book over the other two mentioned is that it has been liberally illustrated in both colour and black white pictures. They intersperse the text all the way through - and this sort of socio-medical history very much benefits from this sort of treatment. It provides both support for the text and makes for easy reading. The text itself isn't too bogged down in technically yawnable detail. Porter is readable, but at the same time it is not a light-weight work written simply to gratify a tabloid market. Naturally, because of constraints of size, it is neither heavy on statistics, nor is their room to fully develop some of the historical points which are made. As a matter of interest I compared some subjects in this work with Porter's other book which he wrote a year later The Greatest Benefit to Mankind
. And in detail the 'The Greatest Benefit.." certainly wins out - but it is twice as long as this one so simply has more room to supply detail.
What I enjoyed most about this book were (1) the fact that it is lavishly illustrated and in colourI'm not sure if a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, but it certainly provides a ready visual cue) and (2) the inserts where subjects were dealt with in side-bars of short separate stories. These included things like 'Transience of Consumptive Beauty", "Nursing becomes professional", Black Death and various biographies.
It all goes to make it a better browsable read than the Greatest Benefit to Mankind - it is probably better for younger ages too who will enjoy the illustrations and the interspersing articles. It is difficult to make a decision, but if you are choosing to buy one (Greatest Benefit
vs Cambridge Illustrated
) I think the illustrations win it for me in the end. though I notice both are quite reasonably priced in soft cover.
400 pages (July 1, 2001)
Cambridge University Press
This is the third review I have written on Socio-medical histories by Roy Porter. I read and reviewed this book, Gout - the Patrician Malady
at the same time as his more general medical histories Cambridge Illustrated History: Medicine
- and The Greatest Benefit to Mankind
. I wanted to compare these books with Porter's work on more specific topics. Porter mentions Gout in passing in both his general histories, but I wondered how he would deal with a more specific subject which had the space of an entire book to develop.
He certainly brings the same light writing style to this book as he does to his other subjects and it made fun reading for what at times could have been very dull and dry.
Porter turns a medical subject into a very interesing social history, he overlays the historical recognition of Gout, its rise in prevalance and treatment, as well as the development of it as a fashionable, upper-class ailment very well. He does this by drawing in the literature and art of the times to track its social progress. Porter certainly shows himself a master of the subject. However, I didn't like the way he sectioned the book. It felt clumsy to me. It is in three parts Histories, Cultures and Goutometries and they seemed to overlap especially the last two sections. Although I did love the chapter on Art in 'Goutometries'. Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the in the 'Cultures' section "Indian Summer; Romantic and Victorian Gout" which traced the literary tradition against the actual social status of Gout through the nineteenth century using representations of Gout in Disraeli and Austen to George Eliot. The most amusing thing, I thought, was Gout as a Symbol of Social Status - Gout was for the upper classes, and rather fashionable - and this resulted in many non-gout illnesses being diagnosed as Gout.
At times I found the book rather long - but I rather think that was me rather than the writing. Most of my interest lies in the Georgian period which was really the peak of the Gout popularity. I wish it had been illustrated in colour too. The only illustrations at all were in the Goutometries and those were black reproductions on standard paper. The book probably has limited interest to most people - but for lovers of Georgian period or medical histories I think this is well worth reading.
402 pages (September 24, 1998)
Yale University Press
Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.