Essays of a Clinincal Scientist Christopher C. Booth. The Memoir Club. British Medical Journal, London, 1987. 318 pp. £14.95. Distributed in the U.S. by Taylor & Francis. Philadelphia. $32.
As a student at Oxford in the early ‘70s, I shared a house with an odd assortment of characters, one of whom was researching a 10th century English king. One day he burst into the house in great excitement, proclaiming he had just found a manuscript that carried marginal annotations made by the king himself. At the time, I did not understand his reaction, but I have since become a scientist who dabbles in historical research (the bane of professional historians!) and now fully appreciate the attractions of the search and the exhilaration thrill of discovery.
Sir Christopher Booth...director of the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park, president of the British Medical Association and former professor of medicine at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School—has clearly trod the same road. Seven of the 14 essays in his book stem from interest in 18th century medicine. The remaining chapters include essays on the forces leading to the eradication of smallpox, the development of medical journals, the importance of technological innovation in medical practice, and the place and importance of clinical research in the advance of medicine.
Nearly all the pieces have been published already, but they certainly bear republishing in a collected edition. Sir Christopher writes clearly and simply and has a well-developed knack for telling a good story. As a result, his prose is easy to read and very entertaining.
It is in this vein that we learn about a variety of 18th century practitioners who lay to rest the common assumption that they lived in a time of unrelieved, deplorable purging and bleeding before the dawning of the new “experimental” medicine in the 19th century. The essays exude all the joy and enlightenment of research and demonstrate time and again how such analysis enriches and enlarges our understanding of present events and social forces.
We also learn of the exploits or William Hillary from Wensleydale, who wrote the classic volume "Epidemiology in Country Practice", John Fothergill a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and an ardent supporter of the American cause; Fothergill’s sister, whose good sense is reflected in correspondence preserved for more than 200 years; Robert William, the founder of modern dermatology in Britain; and John Dawson, who was an unlettered general practitioner in Yorkshire with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics.
I found the histories to be most interesting but learned much from every essay. At a time of concern about the declining interest in research careers by medical practitioners, there probably are important policy perspectives to be reaped by American medicine from the sections on the rise of clinical research in Britain. I heartily recommend this book, a true representation of reproductive physiologist/medical historian George Corner’s statement that a study of medical history cannot but help enhance the career of a medical student.
Rowan is associate professor in
the Department of Environmental
Studies at Tufts University
School of Medicine, Boston, MA
- (The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.21, January 25, 1988)
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