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Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography

Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography

Professor Sherwin B. Nuland M.D.
Yale School of Medicine
Course No.  8128
Course No.  8128
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

In today's era of modern Western medicine, organ transplants are routine, and daily headlines about the mysteries of DNA and the human genome promise that the secrets of life itself are tantalizingly within our reach. Yet to reach this point took thousands of years.

One step at a time, through leaps of progress and hurdles of devastating disappointment, humanity's medical knowledge has moved forward from a time when even the slightest cut held the threat of infection and death, when the flow of blood within the body was a mystery, and "cells" were not even a concept, and when the appearance of a simple instrument allowing a physician to listen to the beat of a diseased heart was a profound advance.

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In today's era of modern Western medicine, organ transplants are routine, and daily headlines about the mysteries of DNA and the human genome promise that the secrets of life itself are tantalizingly within our reach. Yet to reach this point took thousands of years.

One step at a time, through leaps of progress and hurdles of devastating disappointment, humanity's medical knowledge has moved forward from a time when even the slightest cut held the threat of infection and death, when the flow of blood within the body was a mystery, and "cells" were not even a concept, and when the appearance of a simple instrument allowing a physician to listen to the beat of a diseased heart was a profound advance.

How was medical science able to make this extraordinary journey? What major discoveries made it possible? Who were the fascinating individuals responsible for those discoveries, and what qualities prepared each of them for their unique roles in medical history?

The scope of medical history reveals a compelling story.

In Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography, Dr. Sherwin Nuland draws on the lives of 12 of medicine's greatest contributors to tell the human story behind the development of Western scientific medicine. (Asian medicine is not considered in this course; nor are those systems categorized as alternative medicine.)

Striving, Disappointment, Genius ... and Greed

This course shows the human side of science. It's a story about strivings, disappointments, triumphs of human genius, and sometimes, greed.

While medical science is described to some degree, this course focuses on personalities and tells the story of medicine, and does not contain the wealth of scientific detail of a pure science course. The focus here is on medical history.

We feel extraordinarily fortunate in being able to offer this course by this instructor. Physician, surgeon, teacher, medical historian, and bestselling author, Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D., F.A.C.S., is Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine. He brings to each lecture marvelous skills in storytelling and in translating medical and other scientific issues into layman's language.

His lectures are presented with both humor and an easygoing, personable approach, reflecting the qualities that have given his written work such lasting popularity. He will introduce you to medicine's trailblazers: those he calls "among the most fascinating, and I might say, among the most daring individuals that you might ever encounter in life, or in your reading, or even in the movies."

Nature's Closet of Secrets

"Each of them—those who are likable, and those who are obnoxious, those who are modest, and those who are egocentric—those who are serene and those who are crazed—each of them has a unique story to tell us," Dr. Nuland says.

"But the thing that unites all of them is their extraordinary zeal for discovering the secrets of nature, what one of the greatest of them, William Harvey, in the 17th century, would eventually come to call 'nature's closet of secrets.' "

Dr. Nuland ranges far and wide across the intellectual and cultural landscape. He weaves into the story topics such as the rise of universities and how they influenced medical education; the appearance of scientific method and what we call "inductive reasoning" (from the smaller to the greater); the influence of individual personality on achievement along with the accompanying influence of national character and culture; the role of the church; and the part played by each discoverer's psychological makeup.

History through Biography

More than anything else, however, you will get to know the people who pried those "closet of secrets" from nature's grasp, and you'll share some of the intriguing stories that might not have a place in a purely scientific course, but which imbue this course with enduring human fascination. Consider:

  • The favorite childhood play spot of a young 16th-century Flemish boy named Andreas Vesalius. Descended from several generations of physicians, the young Vesalius spent countless happy hours at a nearby place of execution, a gallows where the dead bodies of criminals were left to rot. He was fascinated by the bits of bone and dried flesh he found. Years later, he became a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Padua and published a book called De Humani Corporis Fabrica: On the Structure of the Human Body. Published in 1543, and rich in illustrations by a protégé of Titian named Jan Stephen van Calcar, the mammoth volume is the world's first truly accurate description of human anatomy.
  • The horrible reality of surgery up until the middle of the 19th century, when screaming patients had to be held down, and even the simple procedures then possible, such as amputations, had mortality rates from infection that exceeded 50 percent. You will learn the often-bizarre story behind the discovery of surgical anesthesia, which featured suicides, imprisonment, and even psychotic behavior among the four principals vying for historical recognition and a $100,000 prize promised by the U.S. Congress.
  • Joseph Lister's monumental discovery of the cause of post-operative infection—and even his demonstrable methods of preventing much of it—were rejected by his English colleagues for a full generation, even as they were being accepted elsewhere.
  • The advent of pediatric cardiac surgery was launched by Helen Taussig, one of the first great medical women from Johns Hopkins Medical School, who proposed the idea for the "blue baby" operations performed by Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas. A brilliant African American lab assistant there, Thomas guided the groundbreaking 1944 operation over the shoulder of surgeon Blalock.

Dr. Nuland's course is a marvelous introduction to the science of medicine and is rich in human detail, with every medical discovery explained and put into historical context by one of medicine's most accomplished and famous writers. It is a must-have for anyone interested in the fascinating story of medicine's evolution since the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece, and the brilliant men and women who made this journey possible.

Please note: This course contains some discussion about certain historical medical practices and experiments that, while common in their time, may seem barbaric and unusual to us today. The professor does not necessarily describe them in graphic detail, but due to the subject matter of this course, some descriptions of these practices do arise. This should be noted before selecting this course for a young or sensitive individual.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Hippocrates and the Origins of Western Medicine
    Hippocrates's name is given to a new form of healing, setting aside superstition and religion in favor of keen observation, medical ethics, recording, and teaching. x
  • 2
    The Paradox of Galen
    Galen based his career on the idea that understanding disease required understanding the body. His influence was so overwhelming it took 1,400 years before his errors in that understanding began to surface. x
  • 3
    Vesalius and the Renaissance of Medicine
    An extraordinary volume by a Flemish medical student clarifies the understanding of anatomy of function in ways never imagined before. x
  • 4
    Harvey, Discoverer of the Circulation
    Harvey's 1628 description of the heart's function and the continuous circulation of the body's blood supply is generally considered the greatest contribution ever made to the art of healing. x
  • 5
    Morgagni and the Anatomy of Disease
    The Hippocratic thesis that illness originates in an entire person inhibits research, until the work of one man shows that virtually every symptom arises from a specific pathology in a particular structure. x
  • 6
    Hunter, the Surgeon as Scientist
    At a time when surgeons merely amputated, lanced, and bled at the behest of physicians, John Hunter introduces the notion that they can also be researchers, and brings science into surgery. x
  • 7
    Laennec and the Invention of the Stethoscope
    Driven by his own embarrassment with the necessities of diagnostic procedure, an intensely shy doctor makes a dramatic advance. x
  • 8
    Morton and the Origins of Anesthesia
    In the 1840s, nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform are discovered to have anesthetic properties. The great surge in the possibilities for treatment is accompanied by acrimonious debate among those claiming the credit. x
  • 9
    Virchow and the Cellular Origins of Disease
    Following the discovery of cells, a German pathologist introduces the concept that disease is caused by pathological change in a previously normal cell. His 1858 book becomes the bible of the new medicine. x
  • 10
    Lister and the Germ Theory
    An indomitable Quaker physician persists over two decades in his efforts to convince physicians of the causes of postsurgical mortal infection and how to prevent it, revolutionizing medical thinking. x
  • 11
    Halsted and American Medical Education
    A brilliant young surgeon develops a new paradigm of operating room procedure, transforming surgery and contributing to a new medical school's ascendancy as the model on which all others in the United States would be based. x
  • 12
    Taussig and the Development of Cardiac Surgery
    The Johns Hopkins Medical School is founded on the principle that women must be admitted on the same basis as men. One of its greatest female graduates helps establish the new field of pediatric cardiology. x

Lecture Titles

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Sherwin B. Nuland
M.D. Sherwin B. Nuland
Yale School of Medicine

Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland is Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine and Fellow of the university's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He serves on the executive committees of Yale's Whitney Humanities Center and its Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project. Professor Nuland is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, and the Yale School of Medicine, from which he earned his M.D. After training in surgery at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, he practiced and taught there for three decades. He considers the bedside and operative care of over 10,000 patients to be the most rewarding work of his career. He continues to teach bioethics and medical history to undergraduates and medical students. Dr. Nuland is the author of eight books, including Doctors: The Biography of Medicine and The Wisdom of the Body. He is also the author of How We Die, a reflection on the modern way of death, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 34 weeks. This book won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize and the Book Critics Circle Award. Dr. Nuland has written dozens of articles for magazines and periodicals, including The New Yorker, Time, Life, National Geographic, Discover, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

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