I’m a bit of a history nerd, and something about medical history is particularly appealing to me. Maybe because it’s at the intersection of my interest in history and science. Maybe because it covers so much growth and understanding over the years. Maybe because it’s horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Regardless of the reason why, I often find myself drawn to nonfiction books about the history of medical mistakes. It’s the books that deal not just with the history of medicine and its advancements, but how that history has gone wrong, that attract my attention.
Here are a few of my favorites.
I’d have to credit Sawbones (the podcast by Dr. Sydney and Justin McElroy) as, if not the origins of my interest in weird medical history, at least my modern foray into the world of medical history. This gorgeous coffee table book covers many of the topics featured in their show (as well as others). From terrible cures of the past to the origins of modern vaccines and pretty much everything in between. And the interplay between Sydney’s knowledge as both a medical practitioner and a medical history enthusiast with Justin’s everyman responses and comedic takes gives both the podcast and the book the perfect balance between history and humor.
The 2020 paperback edition was even updated and revised to include information on COVID-19 to see how medical history is actively being created today.
Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Peterson
Think that bubblegum pink antibiotic you had to drink as a kid for ear infections was bad? Trust me, that’s nothing compared to the cures of the past, many of which ranged from useless to downright deadly. From heavy metals used as cure-alls (think mercury and arsenic) to the search for an effective anesthetic, Quackery covers a whole host of the worst ways we’ve tried to deal with sickness and disease. It’s as fascinating as it is horrifying. And be forewarned some of it is really, truly horrifying. One chapter on the history of the lobotomy particularly got to me (not surprisingly, considering, you know, what a lobotomy is).
The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris
Exploring some of the strangest cases in medical history, Thomas Morris recounts everything from medical curiosities like exploding teeth to terrible cure of yore (including port-wine enemas– no thanks). While not all of the stories included in this book are medical mistakes per se, many of them were caused by very human stupidity. Medical history enthusiasts will love the breadth of topics, ranging from terrible to fascinating, in The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth.
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
What does poison have to do with the history of medicine you ask? Well, unfortunately, a whole lot. It’s a well-known adage in toxicology–often attributed to Paracelsus–that the dose makes the poison. While you may know that many common prescription and over-the-counter medicines can be harmful if taken in too large a quantity, you may not know that many medicines used in the past were, well, toxic at pretty much any dosage. Strychnine, arsenic, mercury, and antimony have all been used as medicines in the past. There were times when substances that caused anything to happen (think emetics) were seen as the most promising cures. And considering how little we knew about medicine and the human body, that kind of makes sense. Still. Big yikes.
This book, in particular, explores the history of toxicology and forensic medicine at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City. Various cases of historical poisoning are recounted through the eyes of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler as they redefine the field of forensic medicine and toxicology. Let’s just say CSI wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the two of them.
A History of the Medicines We Take by Anthony C. Cartwright and N. Anthony Armstrong
From Mesopotamian prescriptions written on clay tablets to modern-day biotechnology, A History of the Medicines We Take recounts the development of medicines and how we got to where we are today. An exhaustive history that casual readers may find a bit overwhelming. Less about specific medical mistakes in history and more about the general progress of our knowledge from ancient times to now, but that admittedly means exploring a whole lot of bogus cures and medicines from times before we had any idea what we were doing.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Mixing medical history, investigative reporting, biography and memoir in one, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of the origin of the infamous HeLa cells, an immortal cell line used in medical research to this day, and the Black woman they were taken from without consent. Crediting the woman whose cells have had such an instrumental part in scientific research–especially a poor Black woman–is incredibly important, even if posthumously. Her cells were used to help create the polio vaccine, and yet she was never credited and her family remained unaware–and uncompensated–for decades.
An incredibly important and compelling read. It’s also opened up important discussions about informed consent in the use of medical samples and tissue rights and sheds light on the issue of medical experimentation on the African American community in the past and present.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
There are probably very few people who don’t know someone–a friend or family member or even themselves–who’s had a brush with cancer. Despite the advances in modern medicine, it remains one of the most deadly diseases we face. The Emperor of All Maladies is essentially a biography of that disease. It’s a story of progress and ingenuity and perseverance but also setbacks and the hubris that led to them. Many of the early cures and perceptions of cancer may have been ” medical mistakes,” but this book also chronicles incredible strength, both in the past in present, in people like the Persian Queen Atossa who has a mastectomy to remove malignant breast cancer in the 500s BCE.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Surgery in the nineteenth-century was a dire prospect. Before germ theory and the use of antiseptic practices in the operating room, surgery often meant infection and death. This was before anesthesia, in a time when speed was one of the principal skills desired in a surgeon. (As in the case of Robert Liston, famous for his speed in the operating theater, who shouted the order, ‘Time me, gentleman,’ as he began and famously once preformed a surgery with a 300% mortality rate, killing not only his patient, but an assistant and a bystander as well.)
Enter Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon whose discoveries led to the then-audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection. Of course, just because he had proof–and the dead patients to back it up–didn’t mean anyone took him seriously. Not right away, at least. This grisly, fascinating tale explores the world of surgeons and surgery he was trying so hard to convince.
Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens
Mistake is obviously too cavalier a word to use when it comes to the history of medical experimentation on Black Americans. This was decidedly malpractice, and even that is too kind a word. But maybe you didn’t know just how tied up the history of gynecology is in racism and medical experimentation? In the nineteenth century, the pioneers of gynecology preformed experimental caesarean sections and ovariotomies while also spreading horrifying fictions that have permeated medical thought to this day, such as the idea that Black women were able to withstand pain more so than white women.
A horrifying read, yes, but an important one. Medical Bondage provides an important look into the history of modern medical bias and its use against Black women in particular.
The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean
Misdeeds in the name of science. Though this book doesn’t deal exclusively with medical history, covering instead a whole host of scientific inquiry, it still covers a number of jaw dropping instances in the history of medical mistakes and malpractice. Why do some scientists eschew ethics in the pursuit of knowledge? That’s the primary question The Icepick Surgeon aims to answer.
The Icepick Surgeon will be released on July 13, 2021.
Hooked on the idea of reading books on the history of medical mistakes yet? There’s no going back once you are. And one thing’s for sure, reading books like these always leaves you wondering in ten, twenty, fifty years what will the scientists and people of the future lament as the medical failures of our time?
Thoughts? Medical history nonfiction you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments!