The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1997, 831 pages.

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind takes the reader on a wild ride through the history of medicine from the ancient world through the present day.  Porter is the author of another book entitled Blood and Guts, which is the short version of this lengthy tome.  Oft’ was the cure worse than the disease.  Blood flows freely through this gruesome story.  Porter tells a good story that is bursting with gory detail.  The long litany of human suffering and the barbaric-seeming efforts to alleviate it, is relieved frequently by, I hesitate to say, side-splitting anecdotes which are often really gross.  If we in the 21st century have been brainwashed into believing that modern medicine will deliver us from evil once and for all, Porter puts some sense into our gullible heads.  A good history of medicine like this one reminds us that we are on a continuum of ever-changing knowledge, that today’s shining truths are tomorrow’s embarrassments.  In the end, Porter, a British historian who died unexpectedly in 2002 at the age of 55, rails against the  medical establishment which is forever probing and poking an idolatrous public, looking harder and harder for disease.  He writes:

The irony is that the healthier western society becomes, the more medicine it craves — indeed, it regards maximum access as and a right and duty.  Especially in free market America, immense pressures are created — by the medical profession, by medi-business, the media, by the high-pressure advertising of pharmaceutical companies and dutiful (or susceptible) individuals – to expand the diagnosis of treatable illnesses.  Scares are created.  People are bamboozled into lab tests, often of dubious reliability.  Thanks to diagnostic creep or leap, ever more disorders are revealed….

The root of the trouble is structural. … Doctors and ‘consumers’ are becoming locked within a fantasy that everyone has something wrong with them, everyone and everything can be cured.

Medical consumerism — like all sorts of consumerism, but more menacingly — is designed to be unsatisfying.  The law of diminishing returns necessarily applies.  Extending life becomes feasible, but it may be a life exposed to degrading neglect as resources grow overstretched and politics turn mean.  What an ignominious destiny if the future of medicine turns into bestowing meagre increments of unenjoyed life!

Throughout medical history there are many moments of triumph to be sure.  It was not so very long ago that humankind acquired a complete knowledge of human anatomy and came to an accurate understanding of what all our organs and body parts do and how they thrive.  Many bacterial diseases reared their ugly heads as advances in transportation allowed people to travel further and faster.  Antibiotics cured many of these dreaded diseases that were introduced into new populations because of accelerated travel and the expansion of cites often provided the perfect breeding ground for deadly epidemics.  Anesthetic and antibiotics combined to elevate surgery from a barber’s butchery to a relatively safe intervention.  Porter does a brilliant job of putting it all in perspective.  He has an amazing command of detail and is a spellbinding storyteller.


LINUS PAULING: Force of Nature

Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, Thomas Hager; Simon & Schuster, 1995, New York, New York, 721 pages.

This well-researched biography of one of the most energetic and creative scientists of the 20th century provides a comprehensive portrait of a complex man.  Born in 1901, in Portland, Ore., Pauling’s long life spanned almost a century.  He died in 1994 in Big Sur, Calif. Pauling won two Nobel prizes: one for chemistry, in 1954, the other for peace, in 1963. Pauling’s scientific interests included: the nature of the chemical bond, the structure of protein; sickle cell anemia; the structure of DNA;  x-ray crystallography; quantum mechanics; orthomolecular psychiatry; and nutrition and immunology. He wrote more than 500 journal and magazine articles and 11 books.

He was also a political activist who supported a nuclear test ban and advocated for world government and peace. Though he favored bi-lateral arms reduction, his activities drew the attention of the FBI, which engaged in surveillance activities for 24 years and amassed a 2,500-page file on Pauling during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The FBI regarded Pauling a communist, or a member of communist-front organizations. On a number of occasions he was called upon to testify to defend himself or defend fellow scientists.  On numerous occasions his requests for passports were denied or were granted only after extended efforts.  While Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy years is well known, an extensive and pernicious witch hunt also was conducted within the science community.

Pauling’s abilities came to full flower despite the death of his pharmacist father when Linus was nine and the subsequent financial instability.  But Pauling’s spirit, unlike that of other gifted scientists, most notably J. Robert Oppenheimer, did not break under the extended stress of being branded a communist for more than 20 years.

Author Hager tells a fascinating tale.  Besides detailing the goings on in Pauling’s laboratories and the cross-currents and –fertilization of scientists around the world, Hagarskillfully intertwines the many facets of Pauling’s life: early life, marriage and family, educator, and activist.

Hager fleshes out the arc of Pauling’s life in fascinating detail.  The young Pauling had read The Origin of Species before he was nine.  Pauling once burned off the skin inside his mouth by accidently sucking in ammonia while preparing lab solutions for undergraduates at Oregon Agricultural College.  He and his wife, Ava Helen, were fabulous dancers and wowed the Europeans while visiting in the mid-1920s.  Oppenheimer once suggested to Ava Helen that they run off to Mexico together.  Ava Helen refused, and the deep friendship between Pauling and Oppenheimer cooled for many years.  When Pauling failed to crack the structure of DNA and kept complaining to his wife about his failure to do so, she told him:  “If that was such an important problem, why didn’t you work harder on it.”  When Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, the chemistry department put on a skit entitled “The Road to Stockholm,” which showed the love and admiration for Pauling but also expressed a certain irreverence.  One of the parodies, sung to the tune of “Tavern in the Town,” displayed some of the irreverence:

Pauling’s courses can’t be beat, can’t be beat,

Pauling’s courses are a treat, are a treat.

They will teach you all the facts you need to know,

And maybe some that are not so.

Pauling was brilliant and robust and had great instincts.  He had many successes and failures in his laboratory.  He was an exciting instructor and an inspiring orator.  He was fearless in the face of political intimidation.  He was known to be egotistical but was also beloved by many for his generosity and admired for his true greatness.  Hager’s detailed documentation of the long period of FBI surveillance, suggests that the time and energy Pauling spent on defending himself probably did siphon off valuable energy that Pauling might have put into scientific endeavors.  This period caused problems at his beloved Caltech, and there were many faculty and board members who wanted  Pauling dismissed.  Pauling did not fare well after his resignation from Caltech.  One wonders if his career had not been clouded by fallout from the political extremism of the McCarthy days, if Pauling would have enjoyed more stability and continued to make important discoveries within the confines of mainstream science. Instead, after leaving Caltech, Pauling became a vagabond scientist who had difficulties keeping the Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine afloat and had the misfortune of being looked upon as an elderly crank because of his overblown claims concerning vitamin C. The Force of Nature, however, tells the story of an unbroken man, whose life was inexorably intertwined with the promises and pitfalls of a nation finding its way in the 20th century.

Review of The Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, 2010, Bloomsbury Press, New York, New York.

This book came my way in a science communication class at UW-Madison.  The book provides extensive documentation on how elite scientists have used their impressive scientific credentials to call into question the work of reputable mainstream scientists.  These “outsiders” have worked consistently to undermine credible research on everything from DDT, the dangers of smoking, the Strategic Defense Initiative, acid rain, and global warming.  Their modus operandi generally involves accepting funds from right-wing foundations, who, in turn, are funded by corporations, to spread doubt and skepticism about American science that they deem ideologically motivated and inconvenient.  Journalists have unwittingly aided these groups in achieving their goals because journalists have an ethical obligation to balance different perspectives on an issue.  The problem is that the skepticism expressed by these merchants of doubt represents a minority view, casting doubt upon the research of a majority of mainstream scientists.  The doubting Thomases are bypassing the peer-review process of reputable science to go “public” with bad science and are themselves ideologically motivated. The book raises many questions.  It sounds a warning to journalists and the reading public.  Time after time, a small group of science outsiders has shaped the debate and changed public understanding of particular issues.  Masquerading as white knights, these outsiders have intentionally muddied the waters on any number of important issues and made it difficult for the public to make reasonable judgments about the underlying science.  That it was so easy for this relatively small group of outsiders to change the conversation on a host of important issues is deeply troubling.  This book should put journalists and the reading public on notice in the future and help people identify the modus operandi of these miscreants.

Review of Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniess

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss; !t Books, An Imprint of Harper Collins, 2011, New York, New York, 203 pages.

I am spending a year and a half as a graduate journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  UW-Madison has something called “Big Read” every year for which librarians choose a book for the entire campus to read.  This year, the librarians chose Radioactive, a pictorial biography of Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prize-winner.  Author Lauren Redness visited the UW-Madison campus for a reading, which I was

Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss

unable to attend.  “She’s a wisp of a thing,” one person who did manage to attend Redniss’ reading told me the next day.  “You could hardly hear her.  She’s a writer.  She’s not used to public speaking,” another commented. After reading the book, which is also somewhat wispy and quietly powerful, such comments do not surprise me.  Something frail and very private on display here. It may have to do with Redniss’ attempt to paint the colors of Madame Curie’s heart.  Curie’s passion for science was deeply intertwined with her marriage to Pierre Curie and to her affair with fellow scientist Paul Langevin, and with her children and grandchildren, who followed Curie into science.  Redniss also takes a serious stab at presenting a short history of radioactivity and understanding its “fall out.”  The story is haunting and haunted, ghostly and ghastly.The illustrations have a sketchbook quality to them.  The many well-chosen quotations likewise have a jotted journal quality to them.  Redniss allows us to peer into Curie’s glowing laboratory so full of fascination, into her close marriage to Pierre Curie, into her grief after Pierre Curie’s untimely death, into an ill-fated love affair but successful scientific partnership with Paul Langevin, into Marie Curie’s early death from radiation exposure, and into the deeply intertwined lives of Curie’s children (and grandchildren).  Redniss  further intertwines the history of radioactivity, the bomb, and its other uses.

Radioactive  is a well-researched meditation.  Like poetry, it will stand up to multiple readings and occasional browsings.  The drawings are seductively simple and beautiful.  The reader walks away moved and with understanding.  Minimalist in certain ways, Radioactive is proof that less is often more.  It is a satisfying and thought-provoking book.