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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.3 (2003) 373-374

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John Galbraith Simmons. Doctors & Discoveries: Lives That Created Today’s Medicine. Boston, Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin, 2002. xiii, 459 pp., illus. $24.

John Galbraith Simmons is neither a physician nor a historian. He is an eminent writer of medical and scientific biographies, and his mastery of the genre comes through clearly in this book. It offers a history of western medicine in a little over 400 pages, as told through the biographies of eighty-six physicians and scholars. These accounts illustrate the progression of the scientific content of western medicine. He includes ibn Sina (Avicenna) in this group, though other Islamic physicians such as ar Razi (Rhazes) find no mention.

Simmons’ approach is not chronological. He divides the biographies into six sections and organizes them around certain unifying themes. Thus “Part I: Compass of Western Medicine” starts with Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, and continues through the works of Virchow, Bernard, Pasteur, and Koch, to end with Hippocrates and finally Galen. The arrangement of the biographies in the other sections is equally nontraditional.

A distinct strength of the book is its inclusion of people who have significantly affected modern health sciences, but are generally not well-known. In “Part II” he gives the life stories of earlier notables, such as Vesalius, Harvey, and Paracelsus, but also includes, for example, Boveri for his work on chromosomes and Avery for his investigations of DNA. Missing are Matthew Baillie and Jean Cruveilhier, who helped establish the organic pathologic basis of symptoms.

“Part III” pays tribute to Paré, Boerhaave, John Hunter, and Billroth, among others. It is delightful to find the founder of modern dentistry, Pierre Fauchard, included—though Jacque Daviel who helped make ophthalmology a specialty is not. “Part IV: Creating Modern Medicine” and “Part V: Recent and Contemporary” bring together the familiar names of Osler, Metchnikoff, and Banting with others that are perhaps less well known such as Gajdusek, Klein, and Dausset. I enjoyed the biographies of Hounsfield (computed tomography) and Damadian (magnetic resonance imaging). Florey, Fleming, and Waksman are here, though Ehrlich is mentioned only in passing, and Domagk is ignored. [End Page 373]

I wondered at the inclusion of Kolff, who developed renal dialysis, when there was no mention of a crucial, related innovation, organ transplantation. Biographies of the inventor of the heart-lung machine and the pioneers of adult and pediatric cardiovascular surgery would have made this section complete. Incidentally, the inclusion of Wynder underlines the importance of preventive medicine and of a life-style that promotes health.

“Part VI” brings together Celsus, Avicenna, Bourgeois, Hahnemann, Lydia Pinkham, Paul De Kruif, and Henri Dunant. Palmer, who was instrumental in the founding of chiropractic, appeared in this section, but not Still for osteopathy. I was pleased to see De Kruif included. I remembered the thunderous prose of his Microbe Hunters and especially his Men against Death. His description of his father’s inexorable death from diabetes just before insulin became available made clear to a young premedical student the desperation and the glory of the pathfinders of medicine.

Simmons is not a hero-worshipper, maintaining a neutral position on his subjects. He does not take sides in some of the controversies that he mentions. These include the fiasco of Koch’s tuberculin, the recent discovery and analysis of Pasteur’s notebooks, and the dispute between Gallo and Montagnier over the discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.

Many of the biographies are illustrated, though not all. The notes, bibliography, and index are good, and the typeface small yet legible. The dust jacket carries the well-known painting of The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins. The same painting graces the dust jacket of a similar book that Simmons mentions in the bibliography. The painting is powerful, well-known and rightly so.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly. It is well researched and well written. It is particularly enjoyable for including both the people who are still active and the men and women in the...


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