The Magazine

Healing Signs

Medicine is art, but now it’s science, too.

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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After all, there are many findings which have been significant contributors to our modern medical age: What about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system in the early 17th century? Before this, scientists believed that blood was consumed by the body. Nearly all of our treatments today are based on the idea of circulation, that chemicals will be distributed throughout the body by our blood. The medical historian Paul Strathern has explained that the discovery of circulation of the blood “marked the beginning of modern medicine.” And you could make the argument that the Catholic Church, in not objecting to cadaver dissection during dissection’s inception in the Middle Ages, took a huge step in the right direction. Might superstition have begun to disappear during the first dissections allowed by the Church? And are we not still facing superstitious and pernicious ideas about medicine? The model/actress Jenny McCarthy has mounted a campaign against childhood vaccination because she believes it causes autism—despite the absence of any evidence for this, except outright fraud.

Bliss does not explain why, if this 20th-century shift was so singular, it occurred in the first place. But The Making of Modern Medicine does give us a valuable perspective on medical progress. Physicians have incredible healing powers—surgery to repair limbs and hearts, medications which can raise or lower blood pressure, life-saving blood transfusions—and there are still more incredible developments to come. And yet, a cursory glance demonstrates that our advancement is not quite as substantial as we think. Take vaccination. Variolation, a less refined form, was used in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279): A person’s scabs would be blown into another’s nose through a tube, thereby bestowing immunization against smallpox. Regardless of technological advancements, our strategy has not changed much since then. In order to immunize ourselves against viruses like smallpox, we inject patients with a small dosage of the virus. And amazingly enough, there is still no “effective treatment,” Bliss claims, “for the destruction caused when the smallpox virus invades a human subject.” So we still can’t treat it, as was the case in Montreal in 1885, and we have not had enduring success against a plethora of other diseases and viruses, such as HIV, various cancers, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, among many others.

We have come very far in medicine, but have still barely plunged into the depths of knowledge of medical science. Bliss quotes Osler, who said that modern medicine should be understood as “man’s redemption of man.” But to put too much faith in science is to turn science itself into a church and, as Bliss observes, this church has “no ultimate salvation to offer.”

Aaron Rothstein is a writer in New York.

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