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In A Short History of Medicine, Ackerknecht attempts to sketch the history of medical reasoning since the ancient Egyptian medical papyri up until the mid-1900s. In doing so, Ackerknecht seeks to highlight the randomness and contingency of medical progress – this is a lesson that he contends will be particularly useful for the medical student. As he puts it, "Medical history will show him, long before he could discover for himself in his own professional life, how drugs and gadgets come and go, how often it is suggestion that actually produces the cure, how soon the useful detail of today is superseded by a better one, and how sometimes even positive acquisitions have grown out of irrational approaches, half-truths, and sheer empiricism" (xxii). That said, despite of this, Ackerknecht still seems to contend that ultimately the history of medicine, especially in the West, is particularly progressive trajectory.
Ackerknecht begins his account with a discussion of paleopathology, or the study paleontological and prehistoric evidence of diseases. While there are no documents or artifacts from this era to analyze, fossilized remains provide us insight into the kinds of bacteria and aliments that afflicted prehistoric humans and non-human animals. This evidence even seems to suggest that prehistoric humans were capable of performing complex surgeries, such as trepanations as indicated by the several trephined skulls discovered from that era. While some of these may be the result of malformations or injury, the quantity of such skulls suggests that Neolithic humans were able to perform the surgery successfully on a large scale. Additional evidence from so-called "contemporary primitives" seems to further support this conclusion.
The discussion of "primitive medicine," or the medicine of "contemporary savages," is the central topic of the second chapter. These contemporary societies have remained "fundamentally on a Stone Age level" (7). As such, for Ackerknecht, the study of this medicine is helpful insofar as it can bridge the missing gap in the historical record from paleomedicine to Egyptian medical practices. While Ackerknecht acknowledges some of the problems with this approach, such as the fact that more dynamic first-world countries have to some degree influenced those societies, he still maintains that the analysis, if taken with caution, could be useful. The problematic reference to predominately non-white populations as savages and their medicine as primitive is an example of the kind of Western exceptionalism that Charles E. Rosenberg attributes to Ackerknecht in the concluding essay of this book. As Rosenberg notes, "Like many of his contemporaries, he assume a kind of Western exceptionalism – an assumption that, beginning with the Greeks in classic antiquity Western science had moved inexorably in the direction of empirical truth and rationality" (201).
The discussion of Western medicine specifically begins in the fourth chapter of the book with a discussion of the Greeks. The history of Western medical advances, especially in France, Germany, England and the United States, takes up the bulk of the remaining chapters. From here, Ackerknecht traces several key relationships and themes, including religion and medicine, the place of surgery in medical practices, the treatment of mental illnesses by medical practitioners, the emergence of the hospital and the clinic, the significance of public health, the commercialization of medicine, specialization in medicine as well as developments in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology and their impact on the medical sciences.
To conclude, A Short of History of Medicine is a useful resource for those interested in studying Western medicine. While the book does not go into much detail into particular events or persons of interest, the breath and scope of topics covered are sufficient in giving readers a general idea of the state of medical research and practice throughout the history of the West. Finally, the bibliographic essay by Lisa Haushofer at the end of the book is particularly useful and offers a valuable resource (both historical and contemporary) for those interested in the study of medicine. The essay lists numerous sources for many topics such as disease, hospitals and asylums, knowledge and practice, medical technologies, therapeutics, surgery, the medical marketplace, gender and sexuality, race and colonial histories of medicine.
© 2016 Jordan Liz
Jordan Liz is a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Memphis.