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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes and Emma Shackleton

Review by Nick Bascom

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The images in this survey of medicine prove an eclectic mix of the curious, the grotesque and the breathtakingly beautiful. Covering a wide array of medically related topics — such as cholera, childbirth and charlatans — the book presents the most captivating pieces from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome’s vast collection.

The equally engaging text reveals how Wellcome, a fascinating figure himself (“Born in a log cabin in Sioux Indian country … Wellcome ended his days as a knight of the British Realm”), set about using his fortune to acquire an enormous museum of medical artifacts.

The book feels like a guided tour through that museum. In addition to drawings, paintings and photographs, the authors expertly display and explain sculptures, carvings and myriad other artifacts to provide a comprehensive visual history of the medical tradition across cultures.

Some of the first, crudely limned (and often laughably inaccurate) anatomical diagrams are contained here, as well as gorgeously rendered examples of modern high-powered microscopy. Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy’s picture of colored aspirin crystals taken from a scanning electron microscope looks like a blossoming flower, for example, a marked contrast to drab pills.

Of particular interest is the book’s exploration of pseudoscientific practices, such as phrenology, astrology and alchemy, and their influence on the burgeoning medical traditions of many different societies.

Univ. of Chicago, 2011, 256 p., $50

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