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  • Writer's pictureMolecular Ideas

(Bonus) Three Medical History Reading Recommendations

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Welcome to Molecular Ideas and thank you for sharing your time with us. Today, we have three great reading recommendations for those interested in learning more about the history of medical innovations that still shape our world today. Enjoy our monthly bonus post!

Author's Note: As of this writing, Molecular Ideas posts are not sponsored. I receive no kickbacks from this post or any book sales.

For this month's bonus post, I thought I would share with you one of my favorite New Year's resolutions (remember those?) - reading! I typically read between 20 and 30 books a year across a variety of genres; chief among them are general fiction, science fiction, and medical history!

If you're looking for an engaging read as we head into the summer (or still waiting to be vaccinated), these books would be an excellent place to learn more about some of the most thrilling medical advancements in history.

Why medical history? Because innovation is only science fiction until someone invents it. These books help us know where we're starting from and where we can go next.

Before we get started - please buy these books from your local bookstores or the ones linked below. They not only offer great shipping and competitive pricing, but bolster your local economy, serve as valuable community centers, and stand as bastions of learning. Personally, I recommend Northshire Bookstore and Parnassus Books. In addition to epitomizing the above, both have impeccable customer service.

If you do not know where to find your local bookstore, just look on IndieBound!

The Heart Healers, by James S. Forrester, MD

Ever hear of Medtronic? How about a pacemaker?

More importantly, how do you fix something that can never stop moving?

These are only a small sample of the questions that The Heart Healers answers in journalistic fashion. The book is a compelling series of historical case studies that provide context around how one our most mysterious organs works.

As impossible as it is to believe in a world of stents, EKGs, heart-lung machines, heart surgery was seen as an impossibility until the 1940s. A U.S. military surgeon changed history on D-Day, June 6th, 1944 by successfully removing shrapnel from a wound and closing a hole in the heart. This launched a tidal wave of innovative surgeries, devices, and diagnostics that have improved and extended lives. Dr. Forrester paints a vivid picture of narrative around the surgeons, healthcare administrators, and janitors who made these innovations happen, without sparing any wit.

What's more, Dr. Forrester weaves own context as a cardiologist into the narrative, providing unique insight into what's being taught, practiced and solved for today. The Heart Healers serves as a stirring landscape of this mysterious and critical component of who we are. It's a short, but gripping read. Dare I will make your heart race.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

This is one of those books you read and never forget. While the story begins in the 1950's with a seemingly innocuous surgery, it takes all of three pages to be confronted with the stark contrast between one of medicine's darkest moments and an innovation that would affect millions.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American women from rural Virginia who was unknowingly suffering from cervical cancer. Under the knife of a surgeon and the thin veil of racism at the time, some of her excised tumor cells were kept without her knowledge for a routine experiment. While Henrietta Lacks would die shortly after, her cancer cells - dubbed 'HeLa' cells would perpetually double every 24 hours - a phenomenon seen as a medical miracle.

These cells would form the foundation of a biomedical revolution; suddenly, vaccines, therapeutics, and other experiments that needed a resilient, controlled human cell line would have their perfect reagent. Rebecca Skloot cogently explains how they formed the basis of countless innovations, and how they are still used today.

Yet, there was no informed consent. While her cells were worth millions of dollars, Henrietta Lacks was lost and forgotten. Rebecca Skloot takes us on her journey to uncover the truth. She walks us through the medical institutions of the past, where the appalling was commonplace; to the many researchers and industry conferences where these cells were scrutinized beyond belief; and to the impoverished survivors of Henrietta Lacks' family who had never received notice - much less royalties - that part of her still lived on.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is as informative as it is tragic. It is an exploration of bioethics without abstraction and demands us to confront the interplay of poverty, gender, and race in medicine - and serves as a staunch reminder as to never go back.

The Emperor of All Maladies & The Gene, by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

Buy The Gene at Northshire Bookstore | Buy at Parnassus Books

Buy The Emperor of All Maladies at Northshire Bookstore | Buy at Parnassus Books

Okay, so I cheated with two recommendations here instead of one. If you read these books, you'll see why.

These are the Iliad and Odyssey of medical history. Individually, they are epics unto themselves; together, they form a classic for anyone who wants to understand how scientific thought has evolved over human history, applied to how we understand our day-to-day selves. Despite the page count for each of these books, I strongly recommend you pick these up.

Dr. Mukherjee is a master storyteller who translates the technical nature of genetics and cancer into compelling human narratives. Throughout each book, he never fails to integrate his own experience as an oncologist, father, and son in a way that makes these complex histories relatable. His writing blends a tone that is as pragmatic as it is hopeful, and as empathetic as it questioning.

The Emperor of All Maladies demystifies the enigma of cancer and the many ways we have learned to successfully detect, diagnose, and treat it. Across six sections, Dr. Mukherjee tells a story across centuries as gripping as any thriller novel - and at times, just as terrifying. Regardless of your own scientific background, the thinking behind diagnostic, chemotherapy and surgery advancements are explained simply without you feeling like you're missing any complexity.

That's not to say that the history of understanding and treating cancer is easy - there are moments where it is an emotionally and technically difficult read. What separates this book from others is not merely the depth of research. It is that the narrative is made accessible to through Dr. Mukherjee's balance of humility, humor, and hope to overcome one of the worst manifestations of our own biology.

Where The Emperor of All Maladies initially looks outward to how disease manifests, The Gene looks inward to help us understand our own base code. Beginning with a compelling narrative of his own family genetics, the book elucidates how genetics influences us from conception to our legacy. Just as with his other book, The Gene interweaves the history of scientific thought with its clinical - and cultural - impact.

In the process, the book also highlights the ways this knowledge has been used for throughout human history beyond the manipulation of peas and fruit flies. Manipulation of wheat by Norman Borlaug created an agricultural revolution that saved billions of lives; genetic screening empowers parents to make the right choices for their families. Yet, the falsehood that we are merely 'the sum of our genes' has led to some of humanity's darkest moments. Dr. Mukherjee brings even-handed clarity to these concepts in a way that can only be described as enlightening.

What are some of your favorite reads? Any books you'd like me to check out? Sign up to leave a comment below!

That’s all for today! Let me know if you enjoyed this book review and there may be more in the future. Please share and sign up to leave your thoughts, ideas, and opinions in the comments.

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