So maybe you’re now more interested in the history of medicine all of a sudden. I specialized in the topic during my undergrad and I’ve found that studying the history of medicine and surgery a really good way of thinking critically about some of the ways people talk about health concerns today. How do we know what we know about how diseases work, spread, and should be treated, and how did we as a society come to learn that? Our medical knowledge today is an accumulation of observations and practices that are centuries old. It’s imperfect and incomplete. We go down dead ends. But we’re trying. Some things are well known among medical professionals, but imperfectly known among the greater populace (and I count myself among the second group). New research is emmerging every day, adding nuance, confirming, or debunking prior knowledge – or just raising more questions. Studying the history of medicine, however, has helped me to think critically about the (mis)information flying around today. Here are a few of my favourite works on the history of medicine that may help you along this path too.
First, right off the bat, a reputable and topical modern source: the World Health Organization has assembled a “mythbusting” page, on some of the rumours and misinformation spreading about the current COVID-19 outbreak. Wash your hands (soap and water will do, if done properly), avoid crowds, stay calm, and pay attention to good sources of information on the outbreak.
If you like to consume your learning in audio format (and I love to listen to podcasts while driving, on long walks, and while doing chores), I highly recommend these two history of medicine podcasts:
- This Podcast Will Kill You: two disease ecologists and epidemiologists, both doctors, both named Erin, walk you through notable diseases. They always seem to start with a first-hand description of the disease, talk about how it works, how it spreads, sometimes how it’s treated, as well as how scared you should be about it. (For example: don’t worry about catching leprosy anytime soon.) Super informative and in-depth.
- Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine: Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy talk not only history of medicine but also some dangerous alternate modern ideas about medicine. This podcast in particular is very accessible for people like me without a science background.
In terms of books, two really stick out in my mind:
- Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. This is about the cholera epidemic of 1854 and how someone used maps of deaths to track down the source of the epidemic: one water pump that had a reputation for clean, clear water. It was the case that showed that cholera was waterborne, not airborne. Plus, the doctor who led this initiative was called John Snow. This book really goes in depth into the study of this epidemic and what kind of information fed into the reaction to it. How do you determine the right information to tell people to convince them (the public, but also the city) to take the right action to save lives?
- Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book isn’t about epidemics, but the cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her permission have shaped so much of modern medical research today. This book is about science and ethics of medical study and how complicated that can be.
Whenever people ask me about why I chose to study history at university, and how that’s helped me in my current career (I supervise a team of interpreters AKA educators/tour guides in a national park), I often point out the skills I developed in research and writing. Training as a historian, you really must think critically about sources of information and what you can legitimately glean from that source. There’s no such thing as unbiased material. You have to acknowledge the perspective of the person producing that document and why they may have created it. Knowing all of that, what can we learn from that source of information?
That’s equipped me to think critically about the types of information circulating in the media about this new coronavirus outbreak. There’s a lot of misinformation out there circulating widely without a source to back them up. Many well-meaning people uncritically pass it along. (I in general am an optimist and choose to believe that people generally act out of concern for each other.) There’s a real sense of urgency and a lot of fear in the face of so much that we don’t know. What we do know (or think we know) sometimes leads us down the wrong paths. Some advice circulating is actively harmful – like, don’t spray yourself all over with chlorine. Some advice is pretty innocuous and won’t hurt (i.e., eating more garlic) but is not going to be effective. As in all things, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and assume you’re safe because, for example, you’ve been taking more hot baths lately. (Note that WHO says that extreme cold or heat outside of the body isn’t going to do anything, because your body temperature is still pretty constant.)
The World Health Organization has some good tips. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Avoid crowds. Practice social distancing (staying several metres away from people). Keep up to date on the latest news from reputable sources.
Look out for and check in with friends and family – but know that that might mean not seeing them in person.
Stay safe out there!
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