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Dictionary of Medical Biography. W F Bynum and H Bynum, eds. Greenwood Press, £425, pp1616. ISBN: 0 313 32877 3. Rating ***.
Unsung heroes of modern medicine, page turning legends from Chinese medicine, and juicy anecdotes about Nobel prize winners—Balaji Ravichandran savours a new dictionary of medical biography
The beauty (or the pain) of studying medicine is the sheer volume of eponymous conditions encountered. While much time is spent in memorising their names, we rarely pause to wonder who the name behind the eponymy was, what he or she did, and how they did it. This compendium will serve curious minds well.
The Dictionary of Medical Biography is not a dry collection of facts that only a keen student or a medical historian might pore over. Rather, the insightful and well written essays go beyond merely listing individuals and recording their medical or scientific achievements. For one thing, the articles illustrate the contrasting personalities of some of modern medicine's unlikely champions. Some were loud and proud—for example, Thomas Bartholin, who discovered the sublingual duct and vulvovaginal gland, both of which now bear his name. He claimed that he “was capable of producing a text faster than fungi could shoot up” after many of his manuscripts and texts were destroyed in an estate fire.
Then there were the eccentric ones, like John Hughlings Jackson. The BMJ ran a five page obituary on the neurologist when he died in 1911. Pity the editors of his 300 papers, as he revised his writings several times, each redraft lengthier than the last. His definition of epilepsy along took 11 pages. He read pulp novels and “any rubbish that was handy”—and his students referred to him as “the Sage.”
And then there are the humble ones, who are, unsurprisingly, the most inspiring. The man behind Burkitt's lymphoma, Denis Parsons Burkitt, is known more for his humility, we learn, than his discovery of the haematological cancer and the link between low fibre diet and bowel cancer. He lived all his life according to what his mother told him as a boy: “Disappointment, His appointment—you only need change one letter.” And he chose to inscribe, in all his books, the following passage:
Attitudes are more important than abilities
Motives are more important than methods
Character is more important than cleverness
Perseverance is more important than power
And the heart takes precedence over the head.
In this dictionary of some 1100 entries, anecdotes abound, but they're carefully chosen to illustrate a point. It's fun to discover Frederick Banting's three line protocol for experiments on dogs in John MacLeod's laboratory, which was scribbled on a piece of paper: “Diabetes. [sic] Ligate pancreatic ducts of dogs. Keep dogs alive till acini degenrate leaving islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion of those to relieve glycosuria.”
The initial reception to Banting's findings was lukewarm, and MacLeod ended up sharing much of the credit for the discovery, which Banting thought undeserved. Banting's initial presentation to the American Physiological Society was unimpressive, and MacLeod had to clarify the work for the audience. After a few more attempts the effect of insulin in reducing glucose levels in diabetic patients was recognised, and the rest, of course, is history.
At their best, the legends of Chinese medicine are page turners. Consider Bian Que and Chunyu Yi, both venerated for their knowledge in the study of mai (arterial pulses). Chunyu Yi was born in 205 BC and his memoirs are the basis for his entry. Even earlier, about 500 BC, Bian Que had refined traditional Chinese medicine so well that he was reported to have revived two important people, including the Prince of Guo, from a coma—using only acupuncture needles. Bian Que had run an inn before one of his regular customers decided to share family secrets on healing prescriptions with him.
In a world where Western medicine dominates, it is easy to ignore the diverse and distinct systems of medicine still prevalent around the world. Helpfully, this dictionary includes introductory essays on Islamic, Chinese, South Asian, South East Asian, and Japanese systems of medicine, guiding readers to biographies of interest.
Biographies are written not only to inform but also to inspire. This compendium is a wonderful counter to Oscar Wilde's cynicism—“Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”
Bian Que had refined traditional Chinese medicine so well that he was reported to have revived the Prince of Guo from a coma