Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography

Course No. 8128
Professor Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D.
Yale School of Medicine
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4.6 out of 5
127 Reviews
83% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 8128
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Sherwin B. Nuland

About Your Professor

Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D.
Yale School of Medicine
Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland (1930-2014) was Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine and Fellow of the university's Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He served on the executive committees of Yale's Whitney Humanities Center and its Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project. Professor Nuland was a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, and the Yale School of Medicine, from which he...
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Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 127.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from remarkably entertaining Dr. Nuland is a gifted lecturer. He has broad and deep historical knowledge, and is able to put it together to tell a really nice story. Moreover, he effectively uses one story (one historical figure) to illuminate the next, spinning a coherent web. My only slight reservation is that he tends to simplify, treating each of his subjects somewhat as if they were operating in a vacuum.
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The dark side of medical history I am afraid that I found this course not up to the high standard set by The Learning Company. First it is mis-titled. It should have been called “Trivia and wrong ideas of medical history” The lecturer says this is a scientific view of medicine, the western view. The course then proceeds to discuss a group of “doctors” with wrong ideas. I was expecting a look at Pasteur, Koch, Salk etc. and got a look at all the Doctors that went insane in the fight over credit for anesthesia, gruesome histories of animal experiments, and the history of the primitive state of “medicine” thanks to the influence of Galen. In all fairness the history of Johns Hopkins was interesting if told from a strange perspective.. By analogy the course was like reading a gossip column as opposed to reading a good textbook. Bluntly there was very very little in the course that I would consider taking up brain space to remember. The message that the lecturer seems to convey is that it is a major miracle that present day medicine doesn’t consist of waiving rattles and chanting incantations while bleeding or purging the poor patient. Perhaps some will find this journey into the dark side of medical history interesting but it was certainly not to my taste.
Date published: 2018-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So good! very concise description of the history of western medicine well presented, interesting concepts loved it
Date published: 2018-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting, even for a novice. I purchased the audio version which was fine. I listened in the car and at work. I went into just enough detail without delving into a topic too deeply. I found it enlightening and fascinating. The lecturer had a pleasant voice and a good cadence.
Date published: 2017-12-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from medicine made real I wanted to get a better feel for how we got where we are in the field of medicine. Mission accomplished. It's SO much easier learning about a complex topic when it's delivered in a format that's comfortable. It's not that I now know medicine. But I do have a better appreciation for how we got where we are, and where we might be going.
Date published: 2017-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great history The professor is engaging and informative. Really enjoying learning the history of medicine.
Date published: 2017-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting! I got it on a sale and it was worth every penny! High class.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Bad mumbling, too much on "Greatest xx" Review of Doctors: History thru biography #8128 Bad course. 12 chapters. Made in 2005. Dr. Nuland’s speech is mumbled & very difficult to understand. I am hard of hearing, but can do OK with most courses, but not this one. Cannot really understand much of what he mumbles. He stands immobile at the lectern, almost no graphics. Seems patronizing. Not interested in “teaching” me. No explanation why the particular 12 people. Seems a strange collection. Too much of “greatest”, “most important”, etc. E.g. P. 18: about Harvey & circulation of the blood : “Generally considered to be the greatest contribution to the art of healing” !; page 28 on Morgagni : “His – book – which was one of the most significant turning points in the long history of medicine”. & several others. This one is going back
Date published: 2017-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great as a gift I purchased this course when it was introduced. After watching it I realized this would be a great gift for our Doctors. To date I have given six copies as gifts to our favorite physicians. Everyone said they thoroughly enjoyed it plus our Primary Physician watched with his son before he went off to Medical School. Bill Denni Pensacola, FL
Date published: 2017-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. If you're in health care this is highly recommended. If you're in not healthcare but interested in history it's a compelling listen. Content excellent and story like. Presenter's voice and delivery are quite good.
Date published: 2017-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating I didn't realize how little I knew about the history of medicine until I took this course. I particularly didn't realize how little doctors knew until late in the 19th century, and how difficult it was for scientific doctors to enlighten traditional ones.
Date published: 2017-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rattling good yarns, but... I have given this course five stars because what is chosen well and done well, is chosen and done very well. Nobody could quarrel with lectures 1 - 7 (Hippocrates, Galen, Vesalius, Harvey, Morgagni, Hunter and Laennec). These were the groundbreakers, and set modern scientific medicine on its path. Lecture 8 is on the history of anaesthesia, and is the best storytelling anywhere in the Great Courses: good, strong characters, skulduggery, heroism, madness and death. The only trouble with this lecture is that it really deals with the spread of anaesthesia, rather than its development. (We will leave aside the fact that the Scots and the English have equally good claims, if not better, to have developed the science of anaesthesia.) Professor Nuland's story is of the battle for recognition, fame and money. But it is very very good. Lectures 9 and 10 - Vichow on cellular pathology, and Lister on antiseptic medicine - are also good. Pasteur's contribution is a little played down, and he should have more credit in this lecture, because he developed the science, and Lister applied it to surgery, and Pasteur made a massive contribution to many many areas of medicine. The trouble for me comes with lectures 9 (Halsted) and 10 (Taussig). I am pretty sure that Halsted only made the cut because America was under-represented, but he cannot possibly be put alongside the heroes of lectures 1 - 7, or Virchow, or Lister. His role - as the Professor says - was in the painstaking application of asepsis and anaesthesia, and the development of strict surgical procedures. So far as the last lecture is concerned, although nobody can deny that transplants are amongst the most heroic of operations, Taussig's contribution was again made through the application and development of the grand principles covered in earlier lectures, rather than groundbreaking discoveries. But hey - these are 12 astonishingly good, entertaining and informative lectures, and I have listened to this course at least half a dozen times, usually while driving across France. Professor Nuland is a most humane man (you only need to read his book, "How We Die" to see that) and - to repeat - he is a master storyteller. Listen to the story of the anaesthetists and tell me I'm wrong.
Date published: 2017-07-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've read this book several times and require any aspiring Pre-med student to read it as well. The author gives the best condensed history of medicine I've ever seen.
Date published: 2017-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from amazing gentle story teller with wisdom! Very knowledgeable and an amazing story teller. Dr. Nuland also has a kind of voice that holds your attention with tenderness. His lectures so gripped me; I right away ordered some of his books. He is one of my favorite professors from the Great Courses!
Date published: 2017-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and engaging! The lecturer is sensational - a great storyteller. Fun, interesting, and intellectually interesting. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2017-04-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good info but needs better audio While I liked this class, I found myself going back and repeating sentences frequently. Professor Nuland often lowers his voice at the end of his clauses and sentences, making him difficult to understand. For such a short class, it was merely annoying, but it certainly lessens the enjoyment of listening to the classes. In addition, because I had to raise the volume frequently, the introductory music and applause were WAY too loud -- and just what is the purpose of having applause on a recording anyway?
Date published: 2017-04-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Most Disappointing Poorly prepared and presented. This could have been a most interesting series if it had included more visual material such as texts, paintings, etchings and photos. Instead it was for me dreary and monotonous. I could not watch more than the first three episodes. I have several other Great Coursed and am quite pleased with those.
Date published: 2017-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of Scientific Medicine It is fascinating to see how the art and science of medicine has evolved from the primitive knowledge of the greeks to the discoveries of modern medicine
Date published: 2017-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved it! I've completed 29 courses and this is easily among my 6 favorites. Dr. Nuland made every single lecture informative and well told. I loved the approach he took of using biographies. I hated to reach the end -- I hope to revisit this one again.
Date published: 2016-12-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hippocrates to Heart Surgery audio download version The lecturer, Dr. Nuland, of this course is both a surgeon and professor, making him well qualified to develop and deliver this course. His approach is exactly as the course title indicates, presenting the history of medicine via the biographies of notable physicians. For me, this approach was a bit of a mixed bag. Where it worked, I was fascinated. Getting the personal and professional backgournd on Galen, Harvey and others I found helped me to understand the difficulties in the advance of medicine and also the steady progression from one era and its approach to medicine to the next. For the most part this worked well, especially for the first half dozen or so lecturers. Dr. Nuland does not shy from presenting the unsavory side of some of the well-known personalities and the problems that some of these character traits actually hindered the advance of medicine. For example, I was surprised to learn that Galen, in part due to his certainty that he had the answers to all questions and his corresponding arrogance, actually kept medicine advancing for almost 1,500 years. Or that the rivalries in claiming to be the inventor of anesthesia resulted in jealousy, rage, insanity and suicide. Of course there are plenty of heroic or charming anecdotes as well, my favorite being the reason that Laennec invented the stethoscope (something I won't spoil, in case you don't already know). However I was less persuaded that the single biographic approach worked so well as the course approached modern times. It was still entertaining and I learned a great deal that I had not known, but I could not shake the feeling that so much of more modern medicine was being missed. Of course with only 12 lectures, much must be passed over, but I thought that the choices tended to emphasize surgery as opposedto other specialities. For example I would have thought that Sabine/Salk or someone else along those lines might have been among the major contributors. On the other hand, there are plenty of other, 5 star reviews by physicians (which I am not), so clearly many felt otherwise. Recommended
Date published: 2016-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from After purchasing over a hundred courses I still find subjects that interest me. The courses are my alternative library which is the other half of all my studies and knowledge. I am a lifelong student. How refreshing it is to live in reality and avoid the silliness of pop culture.
Date published: 2016-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent This is a most elegant informative history of medicine. I have given many copies as gifts to Physicians I know, and it should be required "reading" for all medical students. Thank you Professeur Nuland for your time and efforts.
Date published: 2016-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Totally enjoyed this course we have to know about the past to prepare for the future.Shared with my colleagues
Date published: 2016-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An exilerating learning experience! I have repeated listened to these lectures and find new gems of knowledge and nuance every time I hear them. The lecturer's humanity and caring shines through these lives that transformed the medical arts. One gets an appreciation of the impact of individuals had on scientific advance and the limitations placed on them by the times they lived in, including the resistance of their peers and vested interests. My favorite is the inspirational story of the young Quaker ladies' role in the founding of John Hopkins university and hospital, and the subsequent transformation of US medical education. Our only grandson had successful open heart surgery on the second day of his life so the lecture on the search for a cure for "blue babies" had special meaning for us. Especially in describing the personal stories behind the discoveries and skills required to develop the means for us to enjoy our grandson! What I was left with was the appreciation of how very young are the medical arts that I take for granted in my daily life.
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Totally engrossing I listened to Dr. Nuland's fascinating lectures during my daily commute and enjoyed every minute--I only wish the course had been longer. Previous reviewer Yearn2Learn is right about the loud/soft extremes of Dr. N's voice (which maybe could have been dealt with by better sound engineering), but nonetheless the lectures are worth five stars. The final one, about cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig's search for a surgical way to cure "blue baby" syndrome, was worth six. Go for it if you're interested in history and/or medicine.
Date published: 2016-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course As an emergency physician I have greatly enjoyed the course put together by Dr. Nuland. His experience as a physician and surgeon have lent great credibility and knowledge to the information presented. The historical perspective is excellent and this course is a fantastic steppingstone to all of the history of medicine. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Re-inspired me After 25 years of private medical practice my enthusiasm had waned. The history of medical thought through these biographies re-invigorated me. Great material! After listening to these lectures I've delved into the original texts and love sharing them with colleagues. Highly recommend, especially for folks who work in Medicine (a great career).
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The didactic lecture Doctors was a Christmas present from my wife who knew of my fascination with the history of medicine and being a surgeon, I was delighted that the presenter was also a surgeon. Dr. Nuland's delivery and content were superb. Unfortunately his lectures were almost entirely didactic and there was a lack of pictures and learning aides. For example in the lecture about William Harvey, he related that the family seal is still visible on a ceiling at Padua University if you look carefully. His narrative had me on the edge of my seat visualizing it and then that was it - no picture. I was very disappointed. In the lecture about John Hunter, pictures from inside the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London would be a valuable addition. This course is in contrast to Understanding the Universe by Alex Filippenko that is full of power point slides and teaching aides. I suggest Doctors be redone with multiple pictures and teaching aides such as historic surgical equipment. The topic is fascinating.
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from underwhelmed but content has stayed with me There is just something about Dr. Nuland's delivery that raelly irritated me. I think it is that New York drawl (I'm from NYC area, so I know whereof I speak). BUt once I got beyond it and listened to the entire course, I have found that much of it has stayed with me. I find myself remembering a story or anecdote here and there during the course of my day and realizing it came from this course. Well organized, informative, well worth listening to.
Date published: 2015-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of Medicine through Biography One of the most interesting and well done and exciiting courses I have ever taken in my 15 years with Great Courses....I have given it out to 2 Physician friends as gifts.......wonderfull lecturer.......He should do another course...........a true talented teacher of note worthyness.
Date published: 2015-02-21
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