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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128 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

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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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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 128.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The People Who Brought Us Modern Medicine I wish there had been more than just twelve of these wonderful lectures. The subject matter is so interesting, and the presentation so engaging that I consider this course one of the finest of the nearly 100 I have purchased from The Teaching Company. Dr. Nuland speaks with the credibility of a well-prepared teacher plus the flair of an entertaining raconteur. Turning points in medical history are studied here through the biographies of key individuals whose theories, research, and medical practice shaped and furthered doctoring during the past twenty-six centuries. The focus is primarily on Western medicine, though references are also included to Asian medicine, to alternative medicine, to how historical events and religion have influenced doctoring, etc. The biographies of the featured doctors reveal many laudable accomplishments; but I also appreciate that Professor Nuland does not shy away from telling us about occasions when even famous innovators turned out to be wrong-headed in their assumptions or fallible in their behaviours. As with other sciences, progress in medicine has not been exclusively led by the unerring. I highly recommend this Great Course; it is a gem that ought not to be missed.
Date published: 2020-06-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Sorry, didn't work for me, cannot recommend. These 12 lectures were mildly interesting, full of anecdotes, reminded me of the very old radio show "Art Baker's Note Book". I found the professor's droning style quite flat, bland, dry ~ that didn't help. And I dearly wanted to enjoy this series. No, for me it was fair only.
Date published: 2019-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Medicine made easy Very informative and interesting course about history of medicine. Lecturer first rate
Date published: 2019-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I’ve listened to 20+ Great Courses lectures (with 15+ still in the queue), and while practically all of them have been excellent, this continues to be my favorite one. I may have a bias because I’m in the medical field and like history in general, so it combines two things I already love, but I’ve listened to this one three times over just because it’s been so enjoyable. While the individual lectures on their own are good enough, I really love the unique style this lecture has of showing you advancements in science by discussing specific individuals who were important in those advancements and using that human element to tie the lectures together. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if it had been just a basic outline of dates and medical developments. Giving it a human side really makes it something special. Dr. Nuland is an exceptional lecturer as well, enough so that I came back looking specifically for courses done by him and was sad to see this is the only one. I would give this series 10 stars if I could.
Date published: 2019-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of scientific medicine Erudite and entertaining. The content is detailed and fascinating.
Date published: 2019-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Captivating! Loving it. The lecturer clearly loves his topic. Every minute is interesting. He is very skillfully weaving information about the subject's contribution to medicine with information about the subject himself. And gives (what seems to me as a new-to-the-subject listener) just the right amount and kind of information about the times and the state of medicine in those times to provide context and understand better the subject and how/why his contribution made a difference. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2019-01-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting the history of each Each episode being of different topic can be listened to as separate presentation at different times. Don't have to do in order
Date published: 2018-12-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from interesting stories I enjoyed the history and the stories. I liked getting to know the people behind the medical discoveries
Date published: 2018-10-16
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