Reviewed by Jim Young
Published by Dorling Kindersley
Price £19.99 hardback
This book by Steve Parker is a sumptuously illustrated history of human endeavour, ingenuity and perseverance in the field of medicine. The reader cannot but admire the sheer elegance of the minds involved in the dogged work that was needed to evince the evolving medical knowledge.
Reading the book one becomes slowly aware of an almost Schadenfreudal, if slightly discomforting appreciation of the sacrifices from the past that ensured the continuum of medical progress, alongside an almost comforting Münchausen-like journey through the various diseases and emerging treatments. Eventually we realise that we are the beneficiaries of the progress that is narrated in these pages.
To my mind the Kill in the title was the demise of my inability to fully appreciate the medical panorama that has led to the present-day efficacy of medical treatments, while similarly the Cure is the powerful empathy engendered by this book that has purged the ubiquitous cynicism about the role of the medical practitioner in the modern world.
Each section in the book is divided into succinct chapters of just the right length to move the narrative forward while covering all the essentials about the pathology in question and the subsequent treatments and cures.
From prehistoric times where a surprising number of medicaments were used, through the biographies of Imhotep in Egypt, Hippocrates in Greece and Galen in Rome, one can feel the desperate urge to offer physical succour, treatment and cure. This urge to alleviate suffering and to effect a cure is the predominate theme of this book.
The story is enlivened by the spread of knowledge through the different eons, cultures, empires and nationalities. Similarly one can feel the irresistible progress in medical knowledge that overcame the resistance of practitioners of the old schools. The cusps of knowledge where the four humours gave way to the circulatory system, miasmas gave way to microbiology and bacteriology, and where evil spirits gave way to psychiatry.
This fascinating and encouraging book evokes a longing to have been one of these erstwhile pioneers be it a Pasteur, a Lister, a Fleming, a Banting, a Cicely Saunders, or one of the countless others who were the harbingers of efficacious cure, treatment and care.
The multitude of herbal and other cures and treatments described suggests that years of trial and error (Kill or Cure) were needed until the therapies entered the cornucopia of the medical textbooks. Even if the underlying mysticism of those times may not be accepted today, the therapeutic substances that the medicinal herbs contained have only recently been identified and synthesised. If we assume today that we have moved on and are sailing far away from these dark times towards our own bright horizons, it must be remembered that these ancestral practitioners, who are brought to life so convincingly in this book, are the caulking for our planks of knowledge.
The panoply of discoveries in the 20 century is fully covered including medical imaging, diagnosis and novel treatments.
The story moves right through to the problems of today such as antibiotic resistance and the threat of untreatable epidemics or new viral pandemics. Slowly the glad confident morning effused by the panorama of progress described in the book morphs into a slight discomfiture when we realise that even after this ascent of medicine, the age-old fear disease still remains and we can but hope that the allure of genetics, stem cell therapy etc., will be the material for an exciting opening chapter in a future book.
Kill or Cure is a rich, heart-warming, and ultimately rewarding itinerary that I can thoroughly recommend.