Medical history

Like an episode of Play School: Dr Semmelweis, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, reviewed

Bleach and germs are the central themes of Dr Semmelweis, written by Mark Rylance and Stephen Brown. The opening scene, set in the 1860s, presents the harmless old doctor as a charming oddball who adores playing chess with his happy, clever wife. This is code: Semmelweis is an intellectual and a feminist whom it’s safe to like. We flip back to 1837 and meet Semmelweis as a student at a Viennese maternity hospital where the male doctors kill three times as many patients as the female nurses. How come? Well, the males sport filthy aprons spattered with their victims’ blood while the nurses wear freshly laundered habits. So the high

A history of pioneering women doctors descends into Mills & Boon trivia

The first three women doctors on the medical register in the UK had not only to study harder than their male counterparts but also to contort themselves in almost impossible ways, jumping from city to city and country to country in order to gain the scientific knowledge and clinical skills that would allow them to progress. In fact, even after reaching standards where men could easily have graduated, they had to plead to be allowed to sit the exams. Of course, misogyny was not the only bigotry in the 19th century. To black slave-workers, these wealthy white women, who were encouraged to lead pampered lives rather than work in such

The history of transplants had many false starts

On watching transplant surgery, I can give prosaic but essential advice: have a good breakfast. Each operation can last 12 hours, and you’re unlikely to get a seat. Relocating a liver that was recently inside someone else is a feat of preparation, choreography and collaboration (with the patient too, who must agree to alcoholic abstinence). However, transplants can also be organised in minutes. Every day, thousands of units of red cells are requested from NHS blood banks and delivered through IV drips with little ceremony. What then actually is a transplant, which moves ‘life itself… from one man’s body into another’s’? Spare Parts edges up against this question, revealing our

Why medical history is the best history

Spectator contributors were asked: Which moment from history seems most significant or interesting? Here is Justin Webb’s answer: A gloomy January day in the Canadian city of Toronto. The year is 1922 and a 14-year-old boy called Leonard Thompson is lying in the hospital. Leonard weighs under five stone. He has been on a starvation diet to try to keep his death at bay but he is close now to the end. Every Type 1 diabetic in human history has so far faced the same death; with no working pancreas they faded away, their bodies unable to cope with the processing of food.  But on 11 January of that year Leonard

Even after a vaccine, smallpox took two centuries to eradicate

In supposedly unprecedented times such as ours, there are compelling reasons to turn to the history of medicine. For hope, that epidemics do indeed come to an end; for consolation, that the people of the past suffered even more than us; and for insight into how we could be doing better. The story of smallpox satisfies all three. Imagine an airborne disease such as Covid-19, but one in four people who get it will die. It causes a fever, but also a rash which cloaks the body in disfiguring pustules that fuse into reptilian scales. It leaves its victims, if not dead, scarred or blind. Few agree about why this

A ‘loneliness pandemic’ could prove as dangerous as coronavirus

The subjugation of nature has formed a cornerstone of the human agenda. How surprising and humbling, then, to find our way of life so rapidly and unexpectedly undermined by a biological force that transcends identity and culture. Still worse, when we discover that the source of this chaos is a sub-microscopic viral particle whose genetic code — simpler than a bacterium — is barely compatible with a living entity. Yet it has brought global civilisation to a standstill. The stark and poetic prose of Paolo Giordano’s essay How Contagion Works conveys the existential angst of an Italian intellectual as he comes to terms with quarantine: the vulnerabilities, missed opportunities, loneliness,