Reflecting on the History of Medicine, Part 3: Books and Articles for Everyone

As I’m sure you’ve noticed if you read my blog with any regularity, I read a lot of very  theory (which is a jargon term in my intellectual world that refers to philosophical writing that grew out of the work of a specific group of French philosophers starting in the 1960s and 1970s). I love it. But sometimes I get too caught up in the big ideas and forget about the people, characters, and stories that are behind them.

One of the great things about teaching advanced high school students this summer was that I was shaken out of my theory-bubble. We read dense historical texts and philosophy-laden pieces, sure, but we also read some good long-form journalism and non-fiction written for non-academic audiences. I thought I would share some of my favorite actually-nice-to-read books about medicine. For the most part, these are things that I have or plan to someday teach.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: Ann Fadiman’s account of a Hmong family’s struggle to care for their epileptic daughter in the United States in the 1990s has become a must-read for young adults who want to be doctors. I taught this in the Fall 2012 semester in the first class I taught that I had also designed. Half the class had already read the book in high school or during the summer before college! In the book, Fadiman follows the Lee family after their daughter is diagnosed with the biological disease epilepsy by Western doctors in their new home of California, and the spiritual gift of quag dab peg – literally, “the spirit catches you and you fall down” – by their Hmong doctors.  The book follows the family and their Western doctors as Lia Lee’s condition progresses. Their divergent understandings of Lia’s symptoms leads to unexpected alliances and foreseeable (but not preventable) frictions. Fadiman’s account is sympathetic to both sides, bringing out the cultural, ethical, and social stakes of fostering understanding between different systems of interpreting bodily dysfunction. Once you’ve read the book, you can also read about the end of Lia’s life in this New York Times editorial from 2012.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: I’m still kicking myself for cutting this book from my Fall 2012 syllabus in favor of more scholarly readings! Author Rebecca Skloot takes us back in time to the 1940s to discover the origins of the HeLa cell line, a line of “immortal” (perpetually dividing) cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from the American South. Through interviews and historical research, she then follows the story of Lacks’s family up to the present day. The family’s history is tinged by racism, poverty, and poor education. Skloot reveals how these disadvantages makes it easy for physicians and scientists to control the use of Lacks’s cells for generations without regard for the family’s perception of what’s being done to them and without a thought of compensating them for using and profiting from their relative’s tissue. Skloot also delicately addresses her own involvement with the family: Can she help them without falling into the archetype of a “white savior”? Is she just profiting from this family’s story and misfortune like so many researchers before her?

Welcome to Cancerland: Barbara Ehrenreich’s passionate critique of breast cancer “culture” is as fresh and biting now as it was when it was published in 2001. Indeed, the progress that breast cancer treatment seemed to be making back then has turned out to be more of a mixed bag than most realized, making her critique even more valuable today. In this essay, Ehrenreich critiques the pink tint of breast cancer support and activism. After finding herself depersonalized by her physicians, who just wanted to treat “the cancer,” and ostracized by activists and support group leaders who saw no role for anger, Ehrenreich began looking into the patterns of funding and alliances behind breast cancer advocacy and research. This essay resonates with a lot of scholarly work on environmental pollution and the politics of cancer research, and has appeared on almost every syllabus I’ve taught so far (whether written by me or by my professors).

Listening to Prozac: While some things about this book get on my nerves – especially the blind faith in antidepressants as a monotherapy for depression – Peter Kramer does an excellent job of bringing the voices and experiences of people with mental illness to the page. If you can sift through the outdated and paternalistic medical wisdom, the patients’ stories are by turn compelling, tragic, and inspiring. What motivates this book is Kramer’s fascination with the way in which psychotropic drugs seem to remake the personalities of people who take them. What does the widespread use of antidepressants, an unbelievably popular class of drugs, mean for responsibility, community, and the very concept of the self as an unchanging element within each and everyone of us? He publishes frequently in the medical and popular press; it’s worth at least doing a Google search to read what he has to say about caring for people with mental illness even if you’re not ready to commit to the book.

Some of My Best Friends Are Germs: While Michael Pollan definitely has a stance, and while you might love it or hate it, there’s no denying he’s an excellent researcher and writer. The next class I’m going to teach is on the theme of how the human body is embedded in and connected to the “natural” world. This article is a great summary of research on the microbiome and what impact it might have on how we think about human health and the human body in the near term. It segues wonderfully into historical and anthropological work that critiques how rigidly humans try to wall themselves off, both conceptually and materially, from their physical surroundings and fellow living creatures. I cannot WAIT to teach this next spring as part of my new course!

Tanya Luhrmann is an anthropologist who started out studying psychiatry but who now studies evangelical Christianity in the United States. While these may seem like wildly different contexts, for many anthropologists religious practices and medical practices are connected because of the way that, in both contexts, the body is a means through which the “person” whose impulses and desires motivate bodily life experiences the world and acts on those motivations. I admire her ability to communicate ideas that can be inscrutable in scholarly anthropological writing for popular audiences. She writes about her research as a columnist at the New York Times; many of her columns come out in the Sunday Opinions section. She was also recently interviewed by The New Republic. I love seeing anthropologists go mainstream!

Happy reading! If you have more suggestions of books or essays written about medicine for popular audiences that you just WISH you had been allowed to read in a class, let me know!

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