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.