Being a bad surgeon in ancient times was risky business. Botch a surgery, and the penalty might be to have one of your own hands chopped off. Ouch!
That’s just one insight from Williamsburg author Dr. Jonathan L. Stolz’s fascinating new book, “Medicine from Cave Dwellers to Millennials.” Dr. Stolz, a retired physician, doles out more facts than you can shake a stethoscope at. Fortunately, he does so with an informal writing style that makes the medical history go down in the most readable way.
The book links the past to the present thanks to the author’s sharp eye for detail. Long before today’s #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, a 10th-century manual included this caution for doctors making house calls to see patients: “Looking desirously at a man’s wife, daughter or handmaid was of course forbidden.”
Drawing on his extensive research for classes he has taught at the College of William and Mary’s Christopher Wren program for lifelong learning, Dr. Stolz details medical history from the very beginning. Early medical treatment, the book notes, mostly involved magic or prayer. Healers for rulers in ancient Egypt were named for their specialties, such as the “guardian of the royal bowel movements.”
The Greeks brought science to medicine thanks in large part to followers of Hippocrates, famed as “The father of medicine.” He inspired the Hippocratic Oath for physicians — “First, do no harm” — which still used today. Medical education advanced with the first medical school in Salerno, Italy, in the 10th century.
Medical progress was painfully slow — literally for many patients — all the way up to the 19th century, which Dr. Stolz calls “The Dawn of Modern Times ” for medicine. The invention of anesthesia was a godsend for surgery patients. Until then, some surgeons relied on a good left hook to render patients unconscious by socking them in the jaw.
The book deems the discovery of the role of germs in diseases as the most important medical finding ever. A leader was Louis Pasteur, the French chemist, who found that heat would kill germs, leading to the pasteurization of milk and vaccines against such diseases as rabies. The author provides the backstory that Pasteur initially developed his revolutionary process for the French wine industry.
Many medical breakthroughs began by accident. In 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen, a German physicist, was experimenting with cathode rays when he accidently exposed his wife’s hand to the photographic plate with the machine. “The result was an image of the bones of her hand,” the book says. This led to the development of X-ray machines.
Americans didn’t achieve a dominant role in medical advancements until after World War II with such major contributions as the polio vaccine by competing American scientists Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the 1950s. Other major advances have been groundbreaking heart operations, kidney transplants and laparoscopic surgery.
But many challenges remain.
Dr. Stolz writes that one of the most resistant diseases is one of the oldest and deadliest: cancer. But if history is any guide, he adds, advances for treating many more diseases are on the horizon.
“Medicine From Cave Dwellers to Milennials” is far more than a recitation of historical facts. Dr. Stolz tells the colorful stories behind the mysteries of medicine. If you want to be entertained while being educated about medical history, the doctor is in.
Shafer, a James City County resident, is the author of “The Carnival Campaign. How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”