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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 288–289.
PMCID: PMC2844294

Book Review

On the shoulders of giants: eponyms and names in obstetrics and gynaecology
Reviewed by Richard Barnett

Thomas F Baskett.
On the shoulders of giants: eponyms and names in obstetrics and gynaecology, 2nd ed., London, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists,  2008, pp.  xxii, 440, illus., £75.00 (£67.50 to Fellows, Members and Trainees of the RCOG), (hardback  978-1-904752-64-6). 

What defines a “pioneer” in any field of medicine (or, for that matter, in any aspect of life)? Pioneers—the older the better—are so often central to constructions of professional identities, reflecting the potent appeal of seeing present practice standing, as in the title of Thomas Baskett’s new book, “on the shoulders of giants”. Baskett was born and educated in Northern Ireland, but spent his working life as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Canada. In recent years he has turned to the history of medicine, taking the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ diploma course, and in On the shoulders of giants he offers an encyclopaedia of 365 “pioneers” in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, from Soranus via Louise Bourgeois and Nicholas Culpeper to Ian Donald and Dugald Baird. Each entry consists of a two- to five-hundred-word essay on their life and the techniques or ideas with which they are associated, accompanied by portraits or illustrations and a short bibliography of their most influential publications. Baskett throws a few curveballs—Thomas Malthus, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger—but for the most part he is content to minimize controversies, sketching a (relatively) smooth path to contemporary practice.

Like many books in this genre, On the shoulders of giants may be most useful to future generations of historians as a snapshot of the way in which clinicians of the early twenty-first century chose to interpret their past. Judging by the press release, the RCOG Press see Baskett’s work in this way, framing the future in terms of past achievements by “perpetuat[ing] the names and provid[ing] an introductory profile of some of the more significant and fascinating characters in whose steps we follow”. Whatever else this past might be, it is overwhelmingly a male preserve: only fourteen of Baskett’s heroes—less than 5 per cent of the total—are women. Though their voices break through in some places, mothers and babies appear most frequently as body parts or organs, and generally defective ones at that: narrowed pelves, recalcitrant ovaries, distressed foetal hearts, incompetent cervixes. In a book which makes such a show of celebrating and perpetuating great names, it is ironic to find the recipients of all this progress given so few opportunities to speak for themselves.

For this reason, it is perhaps more enlightening to read On the shoulders of giants against the grain. With page after page of formal portraits and photographs this is, amongst other things, a fascinating gallery of medical haircuts through the ages. Most sitters present themselves as sober and respectable medical gentlemen, all starched collars and gold-rimmed spectacles, but a few break this rule: Naguib Mahfouz’s jaunty fez, Grantly Dick Read’s unimpressed-looking cat, Albert Neisser’s luxuriant beard (which looks, as Billy Connolly used to say, as if he had eaten a bear and left its bottom hanging out). Readers might also pause to enjoy the index and contents page, where such oddities as the Braun decapitation hook, Brenner’s tumour and the Burch colposuspension are jumbled together to create a strange and brutal musique concrète.

On the shoulders of giants is not a book which will sharpen or revolutionize our understanding of the history of obstetrics, nor is it intended to be. But for retired clinicians reflecting on the changes they have witnessed through their careers, for historically inclined house officers who want to pass ten minutes in the staff room, for medical students seeking an anecdote that will break the ice with their consultants, this might be just the ticket.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press