Medicine is an ever-evolving profession, and its history can be downright weird. Medical historian Thomas Morris has combed through countless vintage medical journals and historical documents showcasing the progress medicine has made in a relatively short time. His work goes beyond bizarre anecdotes, and instead softens the wonky view of health, breaking into sections ranging from Horrifying Operations to Mysterious Illnesses. Collected here are stories not just of fatal mistakes, but also triumphs and impossible medical breakthroughs.
Who knew pain and poor health could be so funny? The assembled trove of research on maladies and operations are entertaining on their own. The documents in the section discussing the death of the 11th Earl of Kent are morbidly hilarious in their deadpan delivery, but Morris’s asides heighten the material. This carries onto the rest of the book as well. He’s reserved in his delivery, letting source materials speak for themselves, but he knows just how to insert a joke to lighten the mood. It’s necessary when reading about forks stuck in orifices or the ever-present tobacco smoke enema. He doesn’t always hit the obvious jokes, but he hits the right ones.
This is not to suggest that Morris only provides comedic relief. While he does poke gentle fun at some of the more ludicrous ideas, he’s careful not to mock everything outright. He gives praise for some fairly ingenious ideas— and some successes, like a successful 18th century self-performed lithotripsy. However, it’s his explorations of the potential justifications for some ideas that sets this book apart. He has no problem digging deep into research in order to uncover why doctors and medical practitioners assumed outrageous (by today’s standards) remedies would work. Sure, placing a dove on the anus as a treatment seems absurd, but there was some bit of reasoning behind it.
Most books that present anecdote after anecdote begin losing steam around the halfway point. However, Morris has found a workaround here— and it’s not just because the stories shared are cringe-inducing or groan-worthy. Rather, he’s crafted a well-thought-out text that’s tightly packed and clips along nicely. It’s almost like he’s telling the stories directly to the reader, taunting, “You’ll never believe this next part.”
Perhaps most interestingly, Morris challenges readers to not be so sure of our methods today. If we consider the the typical processes of the previous century outlandish now, what will future professionals think of our performance today?
If nothing else, we should be thankful we live in a time of anesthesia and antibiotics.
Title: The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Author: Thomas Morris
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: October 18, 2018
Classification: History, Nonfiction
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.