Variations on a Theme: Advanced Medicine

The Boyfriend and I have been watching The Walking Dead for the past two weeks. In last night's episode, the survivors visited the CDC. That got me thinking, there are a lot of books out there about medicine, medical advancement, and scary diseases.

This month's Variations on a Theme is dedicated to that theme. Some of these books may scare you (ebola, eek!), but others are simply fascinating. The summaries/reviews are all from Amazon.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children. Skloot's portraits of Deborah, her father and brothers are so vibrant and immediate they recall Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukerrjee

"In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer." With this sobering statistic, physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee begins his comprehensive and eloquent "biography" of one of the most virulent diseases of our time. An exhaustive account of cancer's origins, The Emperor of All Maladies illustrates how modern treatments--multi-pronged chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, as well as preventative care--came into existence thanks to a century's worth of research, trials, and small, essential breakthroughs around the globe. While The Emperor of All Maladies is rich with the science and history behind the fight against cancer, it is also a meditation on illness, medical ethics, and the complex, intertwining lives of doctors and patients. Mukherjee's profound compassion--for cancer patients, their families, as well as the oncologists who, all too often, can offer little hope--makes this book a very human history of an elusive and complicated disease.

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of the New Pandemic Age
Nathan Wolfe

In The Viral Storm, award-winning biologist Nathan Wolfe tells the story of how viruses and human beings have evolved side by side through history; how deadly viruses like HIV, swine flu, and bird flu almost wiped us out in the past; and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic.
Wolfe's research missions to the jungles of Africa and the rain forests of Borneo have earned him the nickname "the Indiana Jones of virus hunters," and here Wolfe takes readers along on his groundbreaking and often dangerous research trips—to reveal the surprising origins of the most deadly diseases and to explain the role that viruses have played in human evolution. In a world where each new outbreak seems worse than the one before, Wolfe points the way forward, as new technologies are brought to bear in the most remote areas of the world to neutralize these viruses and even harness their power for the good of humanity. His provocative vision of the future will change the way we think about viruses, and perhaps remove a potential threat to humanity's survival.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
John M. Barry

In 1918, a plague swept across the world virtually without warning, killing healthy young adults as well as vulnerable infants and the elderly. Hospitals and morgues were quickly overwhelmed; in Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in one week alone and bodies piled up on the streets to be carted off to mass graves. But this was not the dreaded Black Death-it was "only influenza." In this sweeping history, Barry (Rising Tide) explores how the deadly confluence of biology (a swiftly mutating flu virus that can pass between animals and humans) and politics (President Wilson's all-out war effort in WWI) created conditions in which the virus thrived, killing more than 50 million worldwide and perhaps as many as 100 million in just a year. Overcrowded military camps and wide-ranging troop deployments allowed the highly contagious flu to spread quickly; transport ships became "floating caskets." Yet the U.S. government refused to shift priorities away from the war and, in effect, ignored the crisis. Shortages of doctors and nurses hurt military and civilian populations alike, and the ineptitude of public health officials exacerbated the death toll. In Philadelphia, the hardest-hit municipality in the U.S., "the entire city government had done nothing" to either contain the disease or assist afflicted families. Instead, official lies and misinformation, Barry argues, created a climate of "fear... [that] threatened to break the society apart." Barry captures the sense of panic and despair that overwhelmed stricken communities and hits hard at those who failed to use their power to protect the public good. He also describes the work of the dedicated researchers who rushed to find the cause of the disease and create vaccines. Flu shots are widely available today because of their heroic efforts, yet we remain vulnerable to a virus that can mutate to a deadly strain without warning. Society's ability to survive another devastating flu pandemic, Barry argues, is as much a political question as a medical one.

Polio: An American Story
David M. Oshinsky

This well-grounded account documents the quest for a polio vaccine. It reveals professional rivalries and clinical breakthroughs, describes a new era in approaches to public philanthropy, and re-creates the tenor of American culture during the 1940s and '50s, when every city, suburb, and rural community faced potential tragedy from annual outbreaks of the disease. The decades-long contentious relationship between doctors Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk provides the centerpiece of this story. Virologists were split into two main camps: those pursuing the development of an attenuated live-virus vaccine versus those focusing on a killed-virus vaccine, with adherents of the latter believing it would prove not only safer and more effective, but also quicker and cheaper to mass produce. Historical context is provided by detailing how Franklin D. Roosevelt raised public awareness, how his influence led to the emergence of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes, and the subsequent creation of the poster child concept as a way of creating grassroots fundraising. The writing dramatically captures both tensions and ethical dimensions inherent in moving from laboratory work with monkeys to human experimentation and, eventually, to implementation of a massive inoculation program reaching 1.3 million schoolchildren in the 1954 Salk vaccine trials. While this part of the story and the public adulation of Salk have been told elsewhere, Oshinsky amplifies the tale with data explaining why the Sabin oral vaccine became the one preeminently adopted internationally, and why the debate has continued.

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery
Richard Hollingham

Glove up and dive in to what Hollingham describes as a whistle-stop tour of a gruesome and fascinating field. The BBC journalist and author (How to Clone the Perfect Blonde) is a deft storyteller who probably never met a dry fact he couldn't infuse with juicy detail. But there's more here than the drive, energy and bravery of medical pioneers, both doctors and patients, from Galen treating gladiators in the second century B.C.E. to Stuart Carter, the first person to have electrical brain implants to treat Parkinson's disease. Hollingham gives us a tribute not only to saving lives but to making them better. Still, it's the missteps that remind us of the human fallibility of even the greatest doctors. [Robert] Liston's operations were messy, bloody and traumatic, Hollingham writes of Britain's most famous 19th-century surgeon, describing a procedure in which Liston accidentally lopped off an assistant's fingers. The patient died of infection, as did the assistant, and an observer died of shock. It was the only operation in surgical history with a 300 percent mortality rate. What better medical history than one that recounts both successes and failures with honesty and gratitude.

Other Advanced Medicine Books
Aspirin: A Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug - Diarmuid Jeffreys
The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America - Barron H. Lerner
Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History - Dorothy H. Crawford
The Discovery of Insulin - Michael Bliss
Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World - Jessica Snyder Sachs
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time - John Kelly
The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History - Donald R. Hopkins
The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story - Richard Preston
Medicating Modern America: Prescription Drugs in History - Andrea Tone and Elizabeth Watkins (eds.)
The Origin of AIDS - Jacques Pepin
Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy - Robert Bud
Plagues and Peoples - William H. McNeill