Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley.

This is the story of medicine in the early part of the nineteenth century when there was no anaesthesia and surgeons earned their reputations on the basis of how quickly they could operate.  Into this brutal world came three men.  Thomas Wakley – who founded the Lancet and who campaigned against quacks, bad practice and so-called cures which were worse than the illness they were meant to treat.

The second man was John Elliotson who wanted to make medicine the best it could be on the basis of the latest scientific discoveries. The third was a Frenchman who was taking France by storm with his mesmerism – self styled Baron Jules Dupotet.

Mesmerism seemed to be the answer to pain during medical treatment and many spectacular operations were performed successfully and without pain.  The medical establishment were suspicious and sceptical.  The book paints a picture of in-fighting, riots, feuds between hospitals and between surgeons.  It shows how many were reluctant to look critically at their own work and examine ways of improving their treatment of patients.  What came over to me very strongly from this book was that patients didn’t really matter.

This isn’t a book for the squeamish but if you can get over the horrific descriptions it does paint a very interesting picture of medicine in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Mesmerism (hypnotism) never really caught on though it has provided pain relief for many over the years.  Unfortunately ethical considerations prevent it being tested in the twenty first century. Perhaps fortunately for people living in the nineteenth century chloroform was discovered and was subsequently used for operations. Though mesmerism also continued to be used.

A well written book with plenty of notes on the text and further books to read if you want to delve deeper into what medicine was like in the nineteenth century.  It also shows how medicine only really progressed because of the work of mavericks such as the three men who feature so largely in this book.

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Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success

I found this a totally fascinating and thought provoking read.  It looks at a subject which we tend to try and avoid in the twenty first century – failure.  The culture is to cover up failures and not talk about them or even think about them.  The author uses examples from the airline industry, medicine, inventions and many other backgrounds – including the industrial revolution – to illustrate failures which can be very useful and instructive.

If you have had recent experience of a medical situation where mistakes were made then maybe this book should come with a warning as you could find some of the situations described uncomfortable.  I almost gave up on the book in the first chapter because it reminded me of a personal experience but I persevered through that first chapter and found myself completely absorbed in the book.

Airlines and aviation generally has learned from its failures which is one of the main reasons why air travel is so safe.  Failures are studied closely to try and establish ways of preventing them.  People are encouraged to report failures so that situations can be addressed.  The author explores failures in medicine  which could have lead to constructive changes and opportunities for people to examine their behaviour .  In medicine consultants are regarded as God and rarely challenged but to avoid problems medicine needs to change its culture so that failures are examined so that future failures can be prevented.

The author quotes some interesting examples from industry where a culture of reporting failures results in a much more relaxed and creative working environment when compared with an environment where failures are punished.  He also quotes James Dyson and his thousands of prototypes for the original bag-less vacuum cleaner.  The point being that you don’t just invest something new – you have to make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of failures before you finally arrive at the finished product.

The idea that failure is part of life and you need failures in order to learn is an interesting one and it made me wonder if schools which don’t allow people to fail aren’t doing their students any favours.  Failures and mistakes are part of life and need to be treated constructively.

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Doctor's Notes by Rosemary Leonard

There is something almost voyeuristic about reading this sort of book as it sometimes feels as though the reader is spying on other people’s lives.  But such books can also be useful sources of information.  I read them for the insights into human behaviour and for the amusing incidents.  Most of the cases described here have a relatively happy ending so the book is very optimistic in many ways.


I chuckled over some stories, winced as I was reading others and shed a few tears over the chapter about injured service people and the Remembrance Day parade.  Like the author, I shall never feel quite the same about turkey basters or about gerbils (don’t ask!) If you’re looking for a relatively quick read which will have you marvelling about the ways of human beings and about how GPs cope with the variety of patients they see then read this.

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Further Confessions of a GP (The Confessions Series)

I think this is the type of book you either love or hate.  I find them fascinating.  This one – like its predecessor – is well written and gives the reader an excellent idea of the joys and frustrations of being a GP.  There are amusing incidents and profoundly tragic incidents and the author freely admits he makes mistakes like anyone else.


I think such books are useful for the ideas they give readers about how not to behave when you see your GP as well as how to get the best out of the consultation.  They also serve to remind people that any dealings with the medical profession are a two way process and it is important to describe your own symptoms as clearly and succinctly as possible.  Your doctor is also a human being and will have off days like anyone else.

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Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself


An interesting book written in an enthusiastic style by an author who has experienced healing in her own body by changing her lifestyle and her thinking.  Many people do not accept that the mind can heal the body and conversely that the mind can make the body suffer physical illness.  Many others feel that to suggest to someone who is ill that it is their brain which has caused the illness is not productive or helpful.


Modern medicine can only go so far in curing illness and it is the powerful healing processes in the patient’s own body and mind which need to be harnessed to produce a cure.  The author quotes scientific research and personal experience as well as individual cases which show how the body and mind interact to produce both illness and ‘wellness’.


Optimistic people seem to live longer and have fewer health problems than the pessimists amongst us.  Studies have been carried out among groups of people who all have the same living conditions – e.g. nuns – and the optimists amongst them lived several years longer than the pessimists and had fewer illnesses and health problems.


Maybe more work needs to be carried out to assess whether we are seeing cause and effect here – or something else but the studies the author quotes from are at the very least persuasive.  One thing about being an optimist is that you are likely to enjoy life more even if you are ill. I was particularly struck by two cases the author quotes of children – one recovered from an apparently incurable cancer and the other who died.  Happiness, hope and disappointment seem to have played a part in both cases.


The author offers many suggestions about how you can improve your own health in some comprehensive appendices.  There are many notes on the text of the book if readers wish to follow up any of the sources.  If you are interested in the mind body connection then this is a fascinating book.

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Dirty Work

Nancy is a surgeon.  She is facing a disciplinary hearing at the hospital where she works because a patient suffered serious bleeding during an abortion which she carried out.  The book covers the four weeks of the hearing which we see from Nancy’s point of view.  During that time she reminisces about what led up to her mistake and how she feels and thinks about her work.


I found this a harrowing read and even though it is fiction it has the ring of truth because its author is herself a surgeon.  As a study of how carrying out abortions affects the professionals involved it is devastating and searingly honest.  Some of the images are likely to reappear in my nightmares.  But this is not an anti-abortion rant dressed up as fiction – it is an absorbing novel which will almost certainly cause you to examine your own views of this always controversial subject.


Whether or not you like the narrator herself, and I didn’t always like her, I wanted things to work out somehow for her and for her patient to live.  Human beings make mistakes – they are not perfect – it is in how we deal with those mistakes that our level of maturity is revealed.


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Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science


This fascinating book provides insights into the world of medicine.  It is about the author’s triumphs and failures and about his mistakes and his almost miraculous intuitions.  I enjoy his writing style and he must be an interesting person to know in real life.  There are strange and puzzling cases and even more strange and puzzling people – both as patients and in the medical profession.  The author talks about marvellous recoveries and tragedies and about cases where medicine intervenes too much rather than letting the human body work things out for itself.


I think the one thing which comes over to me from all the medical books I read is that however much medical science advances there is just so much about the human body which remains undiscovered.  Doctors are never going to get it right all the time however well trained they are and however much experience they have.  I was interested to see how much of an inexact science diagnosis is and the autopsy figures quoted by the author show that the cause of death may turn out to be incorrect as many as a third of cases.  The figures haven’t changed in the US since the 1930s in spite of the huge increase in modern technology and ways of seeing inside the human body.


It is all too easy to assume that modern medicine has all the answers and this book will swiftly disabuse the reader of this idea.  I found the chapter about patients being given all the risks and options fascinating.  Do we want doctors to make decisions for us or do we want to be given enough information to make our own decisions?  What should a doctor do if he/she believes a patient is making the wrong decision?  This author’s books are a must read for anyone who has had any dealing with modern medicine if only because it helps to remind us all that doctors are people too

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