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Reviewed by:
  • Medical Saints: Cosmas and Damian in a Postmodern World by Jacalyn Duffin
  • Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D.

miracles, religious healing

Jacalyn Duffin. Medical Saints: Cosmas and Damian in a Postmodern World. New York, Oxford University Press, 2013. xvi, 256 pp., illus. $29.95.

Jacalyn Duffin approaches the subject of Catholic miracle claims from the unique vantage of a medical doctor with a specialty in hematology as well as a historian of medicine. Medical Saints builds upon Dufffin’s earlier book, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing, 1588-1999, Oxford University Press, 2009. Both books are fascinating, engagingly written accounts. Although not the first scholar to broach the subject of miracles through the lens of medical science, Duffin brings a refreshingly new perspective and style.

Medical Saints begins with the story of how Duffin was drawn to her subject through a series of unlikely circumstances—when in 1987, she was asked, as a hematologist, to provide an independent medical evaluation of a set of blood slides. The slides revealed an aggressive leukemia that should, by all medical predictions, have killed its victim within two years. As Duffin later learned, the patient was still alive and healthy—nearly ten years later at the time of her evaluation and more than thirty years later by the time Duffin published Medical Saints. This acclaimed miracle sealed the case for the canonization of Canada’s first Catholic saint and set Duffin on a twenty-year quest to learn about the relationship between miracles and medicine, past and present.

Medical Saints focuses on devotion to the twin brothers, medical doctors, martyrs (c. 300 C.E.), and saints, Cosmas and Damian, to whom Catholics worldwide continue to turn for intercession. Duffin brings to bear on her subject her medical knowledge, archival research, and surveys and observations of North American and European devotees.

Chapter 1 begins with difficult questions, such as “Must all miracles now be sanctioned by doctors? How could a self-respecting church tolerate this [End Page 665] incursion of skeptical scientists onto their spiritual turf?” (13). At first, Duffin thought that “miracles grew harder and harder to come by in this age of technology, skepticism, and speed” (29). She later concluded that modern medicine makes some miracles easier to identify. Had someone recovered from leukemia two hundred years ago, “no one would have seen a miracle,” because the “medical rules to identify this disease, based on microscopic study of the blood, had not been developed; nor had its dismal survival rates been defined. . . .Without the nineteenth-century ‘invention’ of leukemia and its sinister prognosis, there would be no miraculous cures of that disease today. In fact, microscopes, blood smears, and special stains do not reduce but rather open up a whole new realm of possibility for miracles” (29). Duffin finds that “miracles exist” (30), though her definition of a miracle—“a thing of wonder, a transcendent experience, inexplicable by current human wisdom” (29)— may not satisfy those who attribute miracles to divine intervention.

Chapter 2 explains the historical background of Cosmas and Damian and the global spread of their veneration—including among immigrant Italians at feast days in Toronto, Ontario, where Duffin lives. Chapter 3 elucidates how and why Duffin asked participants the reasons for their devotion by means of a written survey distributed in several cities. Chapter 4 describes Duffm’s research in the Vatican archives. She examined “as least one miracle from every canonization since 1588,” noting “how the diagnoses changed through time, what treatments were used, how the doctors reacted, and how up-to-date was their science” (132)—research that led to Duffin’s earlier book on medical miracles.

Chapter 5 describes Duffin’s examination of medical literature related to “miracles.” For instance, a major medical science database, MEDLINE, only rarely mentions “miracles”—generally in reference to human rather than divine ingenuity, or to deride quackery. Nonjournal medical publications include a few more references—under subject headings such as “Religious Healings,” “Faith Healing,” and “Spirituality” (141). The chapter briefly considers research on intercessory prayer, concluding that the “clinical trials on spirituality seem to have missed the boat; they signify nothing” (145).

The conclusion explains why...