Married to Philippe Bercovici’s colourful, if somewhat literal, cartoons, Fabiani’s narrative rattles through classical history, the Renaissance and the modern age while diligently ticking off the prime innovators and key advances, including William Harvey’s discovery of circulation, Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine and Louis Pasteur’s identification of microbes. Yet as always in medical history, the most fascinating elements are less the milestones on the long road to progress than the detours and dead-ends that litter the way.
Naturally, I turned first to the chapter about the great epidemics, in which, in the course of just 18 pages, Fabiani and Bercovici tell the stories of the search for cures for smallpox, plague, cholera and syphilis. Even if you already know about, say, Edward Jenner and Robert Koch (I dimly remembered Koch’s name from school), it’s the details that capture the imagination – here, as elsewhere. The fact that it was the Persian physician Rhazes, who in the ninth century distinguished smallpox from the measles; that Napoleon vaccinated not only his army against smallpox, but also his baby son; that the intravenous catheter was invented in 1832 by an Edinburgh surgeon, Thomas Latta, who tried to rehydrate a cholera patient using a goose quill; that Baldwin IV, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, died of leprosy at the age of 24 (though his illness did not prevent him from first checking the ambitions of Saladin). And on and on. Truly, this book, witty and wise, is nothing less than a tonic. As we await a vaccine for Covid-19, its every page serves to remind us that where there is curiosity, determination and learning, there is always, always hope.