Tory island doctoring

A while back I featured Elizabeth Shane’s poem  “The Doctor” with its heroic depiction of a doctor bravely taking to the waves to bring succor to a Tory Islander. From Jim Hunter’s “The Waves Of Tory / Tonnta Thoraí“, a rather less flattering portrayal:


“For long period in Tory’s history there was not even a nurse on the island. In an emergency a boat would have to go to mainland to fetch a doctor. Many doctors refused to venture across the seas to Tory and often quoted an exaggerated fee to make their services prohibitive to the island community. One doctor demanded a a fee of £2 in advance before travelling to Tory; after he had performed his duties the islanders refused to take him back until he had paid £5 for the return boat trip. More frequently doctors required sick persons to travel to the mainland for attention. Such trips, often in raging seas, did little to improve the condition of patients.”

Hunter describes a more positive experience of nursing:

“Island nurses were held in greater esteem by the islanders. A whole series of Public Health nurses such as Nurse McVeagh, Nurse Savage and Nurse Rodgers are remembered with great affection. Nurse McVeagh, who served on the island from 1936 to 1953, seems to have placed more emphasis on local cures and remedies than on orthodox medication. She would arrive for the delivery of a child with a black bag in which she carried a pair of shoes and a pair of rubber gloves; the gloves were placed aside, but the shoes were thrown under the bed for luck.”

Hunter later informs us (the book was published in 2006):

“A helicopter service now brings a doctor from Falcarragh at regular intervals to check on the health of the islanders. The helicopter service can also be called in an emergency to bring a doctor to the island or transport a sick person to hospital. The islanders are conscious of their dependence on the good medical services provied by the Letterkenny Hospital, and they have been most generous in raising funds for the purchase of medical equipment. It is not unknown for cheques amounting to £10,000 to be handed over the medical authorities by the Tory community.”

“The Doctor” – Elizabeth Shane

Elizabeth Shane (1877-1951) was a Belfast-born poet who lived most of her life in Donegal. “Tales of the Donegal Coast and Islands” is a volume of poetry initially published in 1921, though this edition is a 1927 reprint.


Shane contributes a foreword:

These little tales of the west coast and islands of Donegal were begun without any idea of publication. They were simply written for my own and my ‘Mate’s’ pleasure, record of happy days in the place we love best, and of the simple everyday doings of a warm-hearted people among whom we count many friends.
Dialect in verse is apt to become burdensome; I have therefore not attempted to do more than suggest the speech of the district by occasional spelling, and by a characteristic turn of the sentences. The brogue is somewhat elusive, and much slighter than that which one hears further south.

I am inclined to wish Shane took her own strictures about dialect in verse being “apt to become burdensome” a little more to heart. Orwell wrote that Kipling’s verse is much improved by being read without the various dropped aitches and “an'”s and “th'”s that characterise him.

It would be curious to know how much the island doctor has changed – aside from being brought in by helicopter of course.


The Doctor


The doctor’s called to Tory now

An’ his boat is at the pier.

Och! his is not an aisy job

At any time o’year

For he’d need be half a sailor-man

That would be doctor here.


There’s many a day he’ll be to start

An’ face a winter gale,

An’ himself would make no fuss at all,

But tell the boys to sail;

Wi’ the thought o’ one in pain beyond,

He’s not the man to fail.


There’s Neal down workin’ at the boat,

And the rest is with him too,

‘Tis the four o’ them do always go

To make the doctor’s crew;

For ’tis Tory is long miles away,

An’ no less o’ them would do.


‘Have ye tackle there?’ the doctor sez,

‘For the mackerel’s in,’ sez he:

‘We can trawl a bit as we go for luck.

Sure, we might get two or three’

But sez Neal, ‘The speed’ll be rayther much

Wi’ this wind in the open sea.’


Sez the doctor, ‘Tis a soldier’s wind,

We’ll be home ere night,’ he cried,

So they’re slippin’ from the harbour now

Down channel wi’ the tide,

An’ the swell is aisy on the bar

Though the wind is fresh outside.


‘Tis lonesome out on the wide, grey sea,

An’ the boat she does be small,

Yet where sickness is, be it calm or storm,

They will answer to the call.

Och! there’s brave things done an’ little said

On the shores o’ Donegal.

Here is a rather badly taken image of the poem as originally set:


One In Three: A son’s journey into the history and science of cancer. Adam Wishart. TLS Sept 2006


Another ten years on (nearly) piece. I was very impressed with this book at the time. Tje tone and tenor of David Adam’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop”  , which I also reviewed for the TLS  and will post here at some point, reminded me of this a lot.

Re-reading the review I am struck by Adam Wishart‘s criticism of medical “detachment” (or what I report here as such) and perhaps will re-read the book itself to explore this more. Also struck (again) by the failure of the War On Cancer and the denigration of basic research which it involved, again as described by Wishart. I would like to read more about this and perhaps read other sources – certainly if Wishart’s account is at all accurate (which I have no reason to doubt) it  teaches us something important about grandiose research agendas. Again thanks to Maren Meinhardt at the TLS for providing me with the published text!


For my father
Seamus Sweeney
Published: 22 September 2006
ONE IN THREE. A son’s journey into the history and science of cancer. By Adam Wishart. 312pp. Profile. Pounds 15. – 1 86197 752 2.

When Adam Wishart’s father was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, he found that no book on the disease was available that father and son could “read and then discuss”. Initially this seems scarcely credible -there are a huge number of books about cancer but in Wishart’s words:

there were memoirs of celebrities who had “battled” through the disease . . . self-help guides that presented basic information but provided no wider context . . . books that described the science in detail, but they didn’t seem to connect to the experience of being a patient . . . academic histories that did not seem to bring the past alive.

The Wisharts were looking for something different. One in Three begins with the six-year-old Wishart clinging “to my Dad’s enormous hand”. They are striding through London on their way to Broad Street to look at its famous pump. John Snow, in the well-known anecdote, removed its handle, so ending the cholera epidemic of 1854. This is Wishart’s first memory of his father’s quest to educate him, a quest that directly leads to this book.

Recognizing that the Broad Street story is “a rather mythologized and child-friendly version of history”, he describes other stories of scientists and scientific progress with which his father regaled him. “For two men who never spoke about their feelings, our intimacy consisted in sharing our interests in politics, history or the progress of science.” Intellectual discovery seems to have been the substitute for emotional revelation between father and son, and One in Three is part of that process.

It is an account of medical progress and the rejection of “the false ideas of the Ancients”. Wishart’s aim is didactic: “we will all be touched (by cancer), in some way. And I have learnt that an amalgam of fear, archaic prejudices and ignorance is no way to deal with it”. Among the “archaic prejudices”, he particularly despises the Galenic idea of “humours” contributing to the disease, which is echoed in the still prevalent idea that certain temperaments are more prone to it than others; according to the doctor in Auden’s “Miss Gee”: “Childless women get it. And men when they retire; / It’s as if there had to be some outlet / For their foiled creative fire”. Nor has Wishart time for Galen’s prescription of a formal and authoritative bedside manner for doctors -“a mode of behaviour which continues to be enacted in many consulting rooms”.

From this Galenic precept, he traces the now much less prevalent but still extant medical “detachment” that can seem like callousness to a terrified, vulnerable patient.

Each chapter deals with a theme -for instance, surgery, or chemotherapy, or the rise of alternative cancer care, as well as stages of Wishart’s father’s illness, considered either directly, or through the mood of the family. So the chapter on surgery discusses Lister and Billroth along with Wishart Senior’s own experience of surgery, while that on alternative therapy discusses Penny Brohn’s disillusionment with her treatment and the foundation of the Bristol Cancer Care in the 1970s, together with the Wisharts’ occasional anger and doubts.

Wishart has an eye for what Yeats called “character isolated by a deed”, the incident that exemplifies a certain trend or moment in cancer care, or helps us to understand the personality of the cancer researchers. Many of the names in cancer treatment -Sidney Farber, Robert Weinberg, even Marie Curie -are familiar simply as names. Wishart brings these complex, driven figures to life, and it is a life that barely relates to the image of dedicated scientists piously labouring for the good of humanity. For instance, Farber’s development of a chemotherapeutic agent for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a story of dogged determination against discouraging clinical results -which in this context means dead children -and the opposition of junior doctors alarmed by his apparently cruel experiments and aloof, Galenic manner.

Among the most memorable characters are two formidable women -Mary Lasker and Penny Brohn, both of whom confronted the cancer establishment with apparent enormous success. Indomitable, passionate, endlessly energetic, Lasker expertly played the social and political worlds of New York and Washington to persuade President Nixon to launch his “War on Cancer”. She was contemptuous of the medical establishment’s insistence that funding should be confined to basic research rather than spent on the “moon shot” approach for a total cure (involving a massive federally funded project with a single big-picture aim, along the lines of the Apollo programme). Brohn, meanwhile, after a particularly bloody biopsy, appalled by the offhand manner of her treating doctors, became convinced that her tumour was the result of “an accumulation of un-discharged grief, pent-up guilt and layer upon layer of fear”, and this conviction prompted her to found the pioneering Bristol centre. Here care was homely and comforting. Even if an insistence on coffee enemas was unpopular, the antithetical approach to Galenic medical authoritarianism was not.

Both of these indefatigable women had equivocal legacies -towards the end of her life, Lasker admitted that basic research behind genetic manipulation, on which she would earlier have poured scorn, was far more promising than the grandiloquent “moon shot” approach. The alternative therapy movement was in one sense a reaction to the hubris of the “War on Cancer”, but often became far more dogmatic and promised far more than mainstream treatment. The medical profession learnt much from its 1970s critics, and duly became more empathetic. The Bristol centre is still operational, but is now complementary with medical oncology.

Wishart combines the story of his father’s illness and death, and medical history, with skill and dignity. Anger and disillusionment are acknowledged, but there are no intemperate judgements of past figures or of contemporary authorities. Indeed, the oly figure who emerges badly is Galen. In his final chapter, Wishart imaginatively reconstructs the possible series of events at a genetic and cellular level that led to his father’s tumour. This speculative passage, reminiscent of the chapter on carbon in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, leads to an epilogue focused on future tactics. As well as possible improvements in public health strategies, Wishart calls for “a thoroughgoing change in taboo-shrouded attitudes, a rejection of opinion rooted in the past, in Galen’s physiological melancholy or in Victorian fear of the incurable. And there has to be a reorientation away from the heady optimism that cancer can be cured, and its flipside that a failure to discover the ‘magic bullet’ is a tragedy for humanity”. As well as admirably filling the gap that the Wisharts identified for an intelligent and humane account of cancer, this wise, dignified book will contribute to a rejection of unsatisfactory theories and practices and the adoption of something better.

Review of “Makers of Modern Medicine”, William Dormandy. Endeavour, June 2005

Original here

I wrote a few reviews for this journal of history of science – I think I lost confidence after having to confess a mistake in a review I wrote in the errata. I consulted Dormandy’s book more recently about something and founds it eccentricities a little off putting rather than charming.

Full-size image (13 K)

In recent years, historians in general and historians of science in particular have tended to shy away from approaching their subjects as ‘Great Men’ of history and providing a narrative account of their achievements. The story of science is no longer told as a series of eureka moments, with lone geniuses toiling away in the isolated pursuit of truth. Sociology, feminism and critiques of capitalism and imperialism – all have informed the new approach to scientific history.

Yet there seems to be an inexhaustible public demand for those Great Man (and, occasionally, Great Woman) stories. Books with titles like ‘The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell’ and ‘The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla’ populate the shelves. The hunger that generates the demand for such books might reflect some deep-seated psychological need to believe in brilliant magi transforming the world. Perhaps it reflects a deeper truth: individual human beings do make breakthroughs and change practices, and although the more febrile romanticism of the Great Man school is evidently ridiculous, portraying science as the product of the interplay of impersonal social forces is equally misleading.

The subtitle of William Dormandy’s Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicinesuggests that it is firmly of the Great-Man school. However, this is not the case. Dormandy firmly puts the lives of his subjects in their social and historical context, and explicitly states that it is necessary to do so in order to truly understand their achievements. His pithy, jaundiced tone is not one of blind obeisance to the ideas of progress and scientific omniscience, or to Great Men – self-proclaimed or elevated by others – in any sphere. However, Dormandy remains free from any ideological hang-ups and respects the individuality and humanity of his subjects.

The 19th century marked the birth of recognisably modern medicine. Dormandy has written about four medics whose lives spanned that century and, as they comprise a physician, an obstetrician, a surgeon and a pathologist, represent four major branches of medicine. He accepts a certain arbitrariness to his selection, but by covering the century and the fields that are the specialties of his subjects he hopes to achieve some kind of representative sample.

René Laennac was born in Brittany eight years before the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and would die of tuberculosis in 1825, four years after Napoleon. As well as engaging in epic battles with the blood-letters of the day, Laennac belonged to a new school of medical thinking that emphasized physical examination and the careful tabulation of results. He invented what would become the modern Caduceus: the stethoscope, thus earning his place in Dormandy’s quartet.

Ignác Semmelweis’ story is perhaps the best known of the four ‘creators’ among contemporary medical students. The Vienna hospital this Hungarian obstetrician worked in was divided into a section for wealthier women staffed by doctors, and a section for poor women staffed by midwives. There was a much higher rate of fatal puerperal fever among the wealthier women, and Semmelweis eventually proved that this was due to infection from necrotic material brought in to the ward by doctors from dissections they had conducted in the mortuary. This idea met with much resistance, owing to the medical politics of the era as well as Semmelweis’ abrasive nature.

Joseph Lister developed the principles of antisepsis; the careful avoidance of any possible source of infection during surgery that explains the ritual ‘scrubbing in’ of surgeons today. Walter Reed completes the quartet, and was a pathologist with the US Army Medical Corps. He established that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes while he was working in Cuba, and this discovery helped to establish principles of modern infection control and prevention.

All four of these men were serious minded, and felt that they were in the vanguard of a new kind of medicine blowing away the superstition and stuffiness of the past. Dying young seems to be as beneficial for a posthumous reputation in medicine as in rock’n’roll or the movies. Of the four, only Lister had a long life, and Dormandy describes his evolution into ‘a slightly petulant enemy of many “new fangled” notions’.

As that little sample indicates, Moments of Truth is a pleasure to read. The writing is fresh and stimulating, judicious but unafraid of bracing judgement. The footnotes are as entertaining, if not more so, than the text itself. Indeed, I found myself with one hand wedged firmly in the back of the book to make sure I didn’t miss a trick. Another attractive feature of the book is a certain warmth and sympathy that is infused into the writing. Some medical histories read like the abstract manipulation of official memoranda and minutes, with the intention of proving some ideological or theoretical point or other – Dormandy’s stories are of living, breathing patients and doctors.

Eels and alcohol – Two letters to Alcohol and Alcoholism (May 2010, May 2014)

OK, for the first time on this blog I will post something I originally posted under my nom du medicine , Seamus Mac Suibhne. Or sort of did, since it is credited to a mysteriously named Seamus Mac Suibhne (Sweeney).

Both letters, appropriately enough, had serendipitous origins. In some compendium of random facts I came across the first, attributed to Culpeper. Later, in J C McKeown’s Cabinet of Roman Curiosities I came across the same advice, attributed to Isidore of Seville. Isidore’s work was itself a compendium of more ancient medical texts, so presumably this advice is even older. I am unaware of any actual clinical trials.

First Letter

Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) was an English physician, herbalist, botanist and astrologer. He lived at a time when these fields overlapped to a considerable extent, and unlike many of his contemporaries he took an empirical approach to the healing enterprise, cataloguing medicinal plant and their effects for himself rather than appealing to tradition. Recent commentators have placed Culpeper in the context of a radical democratization of medical knowledge and authority (Woolley, 2004).

Culpeper’s works have all been immensely influential, being consulted regularly by complementary/alternative practitioners to this day. ‘Culpeper’s Herbal’, the popular name given to his 1653 work ‘The Complete Herbal’, contains the following advice under the section on the medicinal use of living creatures: ‘Eels, being put into wine or beer, and suffered to die in it, he that drinks it will never endure that sort of liquor again’ (Culpeper, 2006 [1653]).

To an early twenty-first (or late twentieth) century medical reader, this is extremely reminiscent of the use of disulfiram as an aversive treatment in problematic alcohol use. Disulfiram has been used in the manufacture of synthetic rubber since the 1800s, and while its range of unpleasant physical reactions to alcohol ingestion in those exposed to it in the process were well known within the rubber industry, it was the mid-1930s before a medical researcher noted the fact (Williams, 1937). The use of disulfiram for aversion treatment of alcohol dependency dates from 1948, when it was serendipitously rediscovered by two Danish researchers who were experimenting with disulfiram as a possible treatment for helminthic parasites (Hald and Jacobsen, 1948; Steffen, 2005). A Danish psychiatrist, Martensen-Larsen, subsequently developed the chemical as a treatment for alcoholism (Martensen-Larsen, 1948).

Naturally occurring substances with analogous action to disulfiram are known—the most prominent being the ink cap mushroom (Broadhurst-Zingrich, 1978), Culpeper’s reference to allowing eels to die in alcoholic beverages and using the resulting concoction to induce aversion to alcohol is suggestive of a similar approach to the aversive pharmacotherapeutic one of disulfiram, one which given his empirical approach Culpeper may have tried himself. Even more suggestively, eel skins have themselves been used to manufacture rubber-like materials. Given the serendipitous route by which disulfiram entered the pharmacopeia of alcohol addiction treatment, it is important that contemporary researchers maintain an alert mind attuned to possible therapeutic strategies of the past.
↵Broadhurst-Zingrich L. Ink caps and alcohol. BMJ 1978;6111:511.
↵Culpeper N. The Complete Herbal. Carlisle: Applewood Books; 2006 [1653].
↵Hald J, Jacobsen E. A drug sensitizing the organism to ethyl alcohol. Lancet 1948;2:1001-4.Medline
↵Martensen-Larsen O. Treatment of alcoholism with a sensitizing drug. Lancet 1948;2:1004.Medline
↵Jenkins R, Jessen H, Steffen VSteffen V; Jenkins R, Jessen H, Steffen V, editors. Managing uncertainty: ethnographic studies of illness, risk and the struggle for control. Challenging Control: Antabuse Medication in Denmark Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press; 2005:173-196.
↵Williams EE. Effects of alcohol on workers with carbon disulfide. JAMA 1937;109:1472-1473.
↵Woolley B. The herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom. Toronto: Harper Collins; 2004.

Second Letter

Isidore of Seville, Eels and Disulfiram
Seamus P.M. MacSuibhne (Sweeney)

In 2010 I corresponded with this journal (Mac Suibhne, 2010) about intriguing parallels between a comment made by the 17th Century English botanist, physician, astrologer and herbalist Thomas Culpeper in his ‘Complete Herbal’ and the use of disulfiram. Culpeper’s specific words were ‘eels, being put into wine or beer, and suffered to die in it, he that drinks it will never endure that sort of liquor again’ (Culpeper, 2006 [1653]).

I wish to the journal readership’s attention to an even earlier citation of the same advice, in Isidore of Seville’s (c. 560–636) encylopaedia Etymologiae. Compiled towards the end of his life, Etymologiae was the first attempt by a Christian writer to produce a compilation of the knowledge of antiquity. It serves as the only remaining source of much classical learning.

Chapter 12 of this work deals with animals; at section 6, verse 41 we find the following: ‘Eels originate from mud; hence, when one is caught, it is so slippery that the tighter you hold it, the more quickly it slips away. They say that the river Ganges, in the East, produces eels 30 feet long. When eels are killed in wine, whoever drinks it then develops a distaste for wine (Isidore of Seville, 2006 [c. 630]).

As this work is a compilation of ancient sources, many of which are lost, it is clear that this advice has an even older origin. In my previous correspondence I outlined the serendipitous discovery of disulfiram as an aversive agent, its derivation from the rubber industry, and linked this naturally occurring disulfiram analogues (Broadhurst-Zingrich, 1978) and with the use of eel skins to produce rubber-like products. It is possible that this form of aversive therapy has even older roots.
↵Broadhurst-Zingrich L. Ink caps and alcohol. BMJ 1978;6111:511.
↵Culpeper N. The Complete Herbal. Carlisle: Applewood Books; 2006 [1653].
↵Isidore of Seville. Etymologiae. (Barney, Lewis, Beach, Berghof, trans). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006 [c. 630].
↵Mac Suibhne S. Commentary: Nicholas Culpeper, eels and disulfiram. Alcohol Alcohol 2010;45:589.

Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton – review from, between July and November 2004

Unfortunately the link to the original review is broken (at time of writing)

I wrote somewhere else (I thought it was here, but revisiting it I don’t see this point) that while we don’t look to the Ancient Greeks or Romans for medical advice, we do for philosophical advice. Re-reading this piece, I wonder if the ideal of the four humours being “in balance” continues to have a strong lay influence, and indeed an influence on us all. Certainly I aspire to be “in balance” and tend to feel bad about it if I don’t.

I heard Nutton speak at a symposium on Vesalius last year in Cork – a fascinating talk, and I was lucky enough to have a chat with him afterwards.

Re-reading this review, I feel awkward about the passages which are pretty obvious paraphrases of Nutton himself, ie the third, fourth and fifth paragraphs. I am not sure how equipped I really was (or am) to properly judge this as a scholarly work. That doesn’t scupper the review, but perhaps I should have avoided throwing around terms such as “magisterial.” The reference to “The Simpsons” also dates this piece  a little – even in 2004 I doubt I kept up with “The Simpsons” that much anymore.

Ancient medicine – Vivian Nutton

Think “ancient medicine”, and for most, Hippocrates comes to mind. The famous oath, which Hippocrates himself almost certainly had nothing to do with, has preserved the name into the age of mass pop culture; one recalls Homer Simpson begging Dr Hibbert to “remember your hippopotamus oath.” Perhaps some have dimly heard of Galen or other medical figures of classical antiquity, but Hippocrates is undoubtedly number one. Many would have also some awareness of the theory of the four humours, the four fluids which ancient doctors felt went “out of balance” in illness.

Professor Vivian Nutton, in his magisterial study that is, apparently, “the first large-scale history of ancient medicine in a single volume for almost 100 years”, looks beyond the Hippocratic method and tradition to the other medical practices of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. He acknowledges that much, and in particular much of the folk tradition and the role of female healers and midwives, is out of our reach because of the nature of the sources that have survived, and avoids making the book a dry account of the famous names and competing theories.

The history of medicine, Nutton writes, is the history of “men and women striving to come to terms with illness, whether as sufferer or as healer.” Hippocrates and the Hippocratics are dealt with fully, but Nutton is keen to bring us the full range of ancient medical thought. He pays especial attention to Galen of Pergamum, a figure much of his academic work has been concerned with and one whom he evidently feels a special affinity. But Galen tended to present himself as a lone fighter for truth amidst ignorance; Nutton introduces other schools of thought, less of whose works have survived (almost three million of Galen’s words are with us still), such as the Methodists, Pneumatists and the various groups of Hippocratics.

Medical thinking inevitably informs and is informed by the wider culture. The detailed description of wounds and their treatment in the Iliad lead some fanciful commentators to postulate that Homer was a medical officer attached to the Argives during the Trojan War. And Thucydides’ famously dispassionate description of the plague that befell Athens during the Peloponnesian War bears the influence of the Hippocratic method and has also inspired speculation that the author has had medical training.

Nutton discusses the interplay between medicine and religion. It comes as a surprise to discover how pliable the Ancient Greek Pantheon was. The cult of Ascelpius, god of healing, only emerged in the fifth century BC. Nutton suggests that there was not competition between medical and magical models of healing in the Greece of this time. It is easy to write of where ancient doctors got things wrong; certainly the four humours (blood, phlegm, bile and black bile) do not feature much in contemporary biology. However, their major insight, that illness was not necessarily a supernatural judgement from above, but something that could be understood and alleviated, was perhaps the most significant breakthrough in thinking about disease in history.

Most commentators have tended to be rather dismissive of Roman medicine. At least some of this is due to an equation of Roman with Latin and a more limited, insular culture than the Greeks; as Nutton writes, this was certainly true of the Republic but not of the multilingual Empire. Galen was a man of the second century AD. The book is strong on the medicine of the later Empire, with the rise of Christianity occasionally clashing with medical thinking but on the whole complementing it. The new religion, with its emphasis on the New Testament injunction to love one’s neighbour, oversaw the creation of the modern hospital in the early fourth century AD.

Nutton’s main focus is an attempt to reconstruct the individual lives of patients and doctors. He writes that he wants to “give a sense of ancient medicine, what it must have been like to have seen Hippocrates at the bedside of a patient, Erasistratus experimenting, Asclepiades or Thessalus holding forth, or Galen dissecting a pig.” Ancient doctors were independent spirits, and Nutton’s attempt to reconstruction the contention of different ideas of healing and illness is entirely admirable. The traditional, heroic account of ancient medicine as the gradual accumulation of skills and knowledge from early Greece to Galen is not abandoned, but balanced.

For a scholarly work, Ancient Medicine is a readable story of the ordinary lives of history. Nutton is a patient, fair-minded and wise guide to the array of medical practices of the classical past. The book acts as a corrective to misconceptions about the classical past, without indulging in revisionism for the sake of it.

Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures, Inis Childrens Magazine/Childrens Books Ireland, November 2014

From Childrens Books Ireland, a capsule review of a childrens book about medicine. The van Tulleken brothers strike me as quite admirable in their enthusiastic multimedia presence. Again, perhaps a wry scepticism about history-from-below is evident. I didn’t have space to note that while the entries on Fleming, Nightingale and most other figures in the book are irreverent, that on Seacole is very sober and straight-laced:

Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures
Chris van Tulleken and Xand van Tulleken

History traditionally focused on what were deemed great events – sometimes caricatured as the ‘maps and chaps’ approach. In recent decades, ‘history from below’ has gained in academic prestige, with everyday life and consideration of marginalised, under-documented groups being the focus. The huge popularity of the Horrible Histories series has shown the appeal of history-from-below in a perhaps more literal sense – their focus on bodily functions and gross-out humour may not be to everyone’s taste, but they do provide a gateway into reading about the everyday life of the past.

The van Tulleken twins are Oxford medical graduates who have carved a niche for themselves as presenters of the CBBC series Operation Ouch! This book is the second tie-in volume; the first, Your Brilliant Body, won the 9-11 Best Fact Book award at the Booktrust Best Book Awards in 2014. Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures is formatted as a series of dialogues between the brothers on various parts of the body, interspersed with short profiles of medical notables and some quirky activities that will get the target readership’s attention.

The history-from-below emphasis is even apparent in the vignettes on pioneers of healthcare, with the Jamacian-born Mary Seacole, about whom very little is reliably known, given equal prominence with Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming and the rest. The brothers’ dialogues don’t entirely work on the printed page, but that aside this is a handsomely produced tie-in that combines medical history with bodily functions in a way that will appeal to the target readership.