The Greatest Benefit to Mankind

Posted by Brian Tue, 27 Apr 2010 01:40:09 GMT

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity
By Roy Porter

2/5

In college I took a history class called Changing Concepts of Health and Illness that was taught by the best professor I ever had, Theodore Brown. He brought immense knowledge and passion for the topic to bear in an engaging fashion that made me look forward to going to every class. The main text for that class was The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, but we only covered about somewhere from one-third to a half of it. Ever since then it has sat on my bookshelf until I finally got around to reading the whole thing. Unfortunately, without Professor Brown’s teaching to go with it, the book shows itself to be overwhelming in its efforts to be comprehensive.

Roy Porter sets out to provide the reader with a comprehensive history of medicine from a Western perspective. The problem is that the topic is simply too large to handle in the manner he attempts. When covering a topic this large there must be some sort of narrative or flow to propel the reader forward. In this case though Porter has written in a very dry, encyclopedic style. Names are thrown at the reader so fast they just become a blur. In many sections multiple names are thrown out and then one is referred back to and it is difficult to remember who did what.

I can’t help compare this book against Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I just finished this weekend (review forthcoming). Diamond took on a similarly daunting task of tracing the why’s of 13,000 years of history, but he did it in a narrative way. He clearly set forth his goals to the reader and followed through. When taking on a monumental subject you must give the reader goals to be reading for. Guns, Germs, and Steel would have been nowhere near as successful if we had wrote it in Porter’s style.

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind is probably best served in the way Professor Brown used it: as a supplement to a conversation on Western medicine. It serves very well as reference material, helped by its enormous index. Don’t read the whole thing though.

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