The best medicine books

14 authors have picked their favorite books about medicine and why they recommend each book.

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The Medical Detectives

By Berton Roueché,

Book cover of The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

Ever since my seventh-grade science teacher used my flyaway hair to demonstrate static electricity, I have loved science, and I also like mystery stories. This classic collection of short pieces is a favorite in both arenas. It is like a true crime series in which the villains are microorganisms and molecules. Unraveling puzzles involving all manner of medical issues, from rabies to toxic chemicals, these case-study stories kept me riveted from beginning to end. Mostly written from the 1940s to the 1960s, they also touch on some shocking medical practices that one hopes are now outdated.


Who am I?

As a novelist, I am endlessly curious about people and like hearing their stories. As an erstwhile computer programmer and farmer, I also have a lifelong interest in science and natural history. When I find those two divergent interests have cross-pollinated in a single gracefully-written book, I am a very happy reader. I love books that weave together an intriguing scientific question with the human story of the scientists pursuing an answer to that question.


I wrote...

Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

By Edith Forbes,

Book cover of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

What is my book about?

When I experienced my first episode of multiple sclerosis in 1993, no treatments existed. The doctors said there was nothing to be done. I was raised by a mother whose early widowhood had left her with seven young children, a ranch in Wyoming, and an ambition to change the world.  She did not like the phrase “nothing to be done” and neither did I.

I immersed myself in the medical literature, and thanks to my background in agriculture, I noticed a possible dietary factor in MS that was not being talked about. That observation launched me on a self-designed experiment that continues to this day. Tracking a Shadow tells the story of that experiment and the mother who taught me to ask questions.  

Bodies Politic

By Roy Porter,

Book cover of Bodies Politic: Disease, Death, and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900

After I decided to include this old favourite of mine, I discovered to my great delight that Bodies Politic is about to be reissued in paperback. Roy Porter was the most prolific, fluent and insightful academic I have ever been privileged to know, and decades ago, his lectures inspired me to recognise how much fun historical research can be. In my own work, I have focused strongly on images – not only in textbooks, but also in journals, art galleries and albums. As Porter expertly discusses, studying caricatures is immensely enjoyable but also invaluable for uncovering concealed controversies, which provide crucial indicators of what people really thought.


Who am I?

I’m an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and I’ve written several popular books as well as featuring in TV/radio programmes such as In Our Time and Start the Week (BBC). I love the challenge of explaining to general audiences why the history of science is such an exciting and important subject – far more difficult than writing an academic paper. I believe that studying the past is crucial for understanding how we’ve reached the present – and the whole point of doing that is to improve the future. My underlying preoccupations involve exploring how and why western science has developed over the last few centuries to become the dominant (and male-dominated) culture throughout the world.


I wrote...

Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career

What is my book about?

The story of Isaac Newton's decades in London as an ambitious cosmopolitan gentleman, President of London's Royal Society, Master of the Mint, and investor in the slave trade. Isaac Newton is celebrated throughout the world as a great scientific genius who conceived the theory of gravity. But in his early fifties, he abandoned his life as a reclusive university scholar to spend three decades in London, a long period of metropolitan activity that is often overlooked. Enmeshed in Enlightenment politics and social affairs, Newton participated in the linked spheres of early science and imperialist capitalism. Instead of the quiet cloisters and dark libraries of Cambridge's all-male world, he now moved in fashionable London society, which was characterized by patronage relationships, sexual intrigues, and ruthless ambition.


"On Second Thought" and Other Essays in the History of Medicine and Science

By Owsei Temkin,

Book cover of "On Second Thought" and Other Essays in the History of Medicine and Science

This series of essays by a humane physician-historian who first attracted me to medical history examines basic ideas in medicine across centuries and cultures. Published when the author was almost a hundred, it raises important questions about medical ethics and the place of medicine in society from the Greeks onwards.


Who am I?

Vivian Nutton is an emeritus professor of the History of Medicine at UCL and has written extensively on the pre-modern history of medicine. He has lectured around the world and held posts in Cambridge and Moscow as well as the USA. His many books include editions and translations of Galen as well as a major survey of Greek and Roman Medicine, and he is currently writing a history of medicine in the Late Renaissance.


Galen: A Thinking Doctor in Imperial Rome

By Vivian Nutton,

Book cover of Galen: A Thinking Doctor in Imperial Rome

Galen of Pergamum, a Greek doctor in ancient Rome, is a fascinating figure, doctor to several Roman Emperors, a prolific writer, an overbearing egotist, a medical genius, an acute observer, and intelligent thinker, whose influence lasted for a millennium and a half. I have tried to explain the complexities of a man whose writings still provoke admiration or dissent, but rarely allow neutrality.

Anatomy of an Illness

By Norman Cousins,

Book cover of Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient

This is the book that started the therapeutic humor movement. Cousins reveals how laughter helped him heal from a life-threatening illness. When he was diagnosed with a crippling and irreversible disease, he forged an unusual collaboration with his physician, and together they were able to beat the odds. This remarkable story of the triumph of the human spirit is truly inspirational reading.


Who am I?

Allen Klein is the world’s only “Jollytologist®”. Through his books, workshops, and keynote speeches, for the past 30-plus years, he has been showing audiences worldwide how to use humor and positivity to deal with life’s not-so-funny stuff. He is a pioneer in the therapeutic humor field and a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. Comedian Jerry Lewis has said that Klein is “a noble and vital force watching over the human condition.”


I wrote...

The Healing Power of Humor: Techniques for Getting Through Loss, Setbacks, Upsets, Disappointments, Difficulties, Trials, Tribulations, and All That Not-So-Funny Stuff

By Allen Klein,

Book cover of The Healing Power of Humor: Techniques for Getting Through Loss, Setbacks, Upsets, Disappointments, Difficulties, Trials, Tribulations, and All That Not-So-Funny Stuff

What is my book about?

The Healing Power of Humor has become the quintessential book in the therapeutic humor field. Brimming with pointed, humorous anecdotes and learn-to-laugh techniques, this book combines the wisdom of the world’s great spiritual teachers with the insights of famed humorists, comedians, and others to help you turn life’s negatives into positives. It is the ideal book for anyone going through troubled times—whether it’s the loss of a wallet, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or a stay in the hospital.

Perhaps one Amazon reviewer captured the essence of the book best when they wrote: “I was taking a training that was particularly difficult. At lunch and breaks I would open this book and read. It is like the sun coming out after a thunderstorm. It is fun and serious at the same time.”

Strangers at the Bedside

By David J. Rothman,

Book cover of Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making

Rothman was one of the first to examine the culture of research medicine and its relationship to science and American culture at large. Doctors on the cutting edge of new procedures, much desired medical elixirs, and scientific advancement used a utilitarian calculus to determine what was ethical and what the public was willing to accept. Scientific breakthroughs were celebrated with few - certainly no one of renown - taking notice that the breakthroughs were coming at the expense of vulnerable, powerless populations.


Who am I?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.


I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

The Diary of William Harvey

By Jean Hamburger, Barbara Wright (translator),

Book cover of The Diary of William Harvey: The Imaginary Journal of the Physician Who Revolutionized Medicine

It was a great idea to make Harvey come to life by imagining what he’d have written in his diary! This is a well-researched book which gets across how much more there was to Harvey than just the circulation of the blood. His family, his work on the development of the embryo, his role as a physician to King Charles I, and his encounters with witches – a great story – as well as a convincing sense of the sort of man he was and of the times in which he lived.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by history since I was a fairly sickly child, which means I was gradually drawn towards the history of medicine. Add to that having a hereditary blood clotting condition and you can see why this topic appeals to me! I have a BA and a PhD in History from University College London and have held posts in the universities of Cambridge, Newcastle, Reading, and then at The Open University. I’ve also held visiting professorships in Vienna, Texas, and Minnesota and have published six books as well as editing others. I’m sort of retired but still writing and lecturing.


I wrote...

Greek and Roman Medicine

By Helen King,

Book cover of Greek and Roman Medicine

What is my book about?

I tried to summarize ancient Greek and Roman medicine in a book you could read in a day. What happened if you felt ill? Who could help? What treatments were on offer – bleeding was one – and would they make any difference? How did people think the body worked? 

Ancient medicine is pre-antibiotics, and indeed pre-all the knowledge of the body which we take for granted; including how blood moves around the body. My final chapter covered the influence of ancient medicine up to the nineteenth century (when people still translated Greek and Roman texts, because they thought the medicine worked!) and I briefly mentioned William Harvey who discovered circulation and published his book on it in 1628. Although saying something new, he still talked about the ancients: “Mistress Antiquity”. He still had to show that he knew the work of Aristotle and Galen, as well as of his contemporaries.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

By Anne Fadiman,

Book cover of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

After a young girl from a Hmong refugee family is diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy, the resulting clash between Western medicine and Eastern spirituality ends in tragedy when she suffers a prolonged seizure that leaves her in a coma. The outcome might have been different if the well-meaning doctors who were desperate to help had approached the family with more understanding of and respect for the Hmong culture. But author Anne Fadiman leaves it to the reader to realize that there are no villains or easy answers in this thought-provoking exploration of the perils of cultural incompetence.


Who am I?

I am an author, science journalist, and storyteller. I worked for the PBS science series NOVA for many years, producing documentaries, podcasts, digital video series, and interactive games on everything from asteroids to human origins to art restoration. But I am particularly fascinated by strange brains, which is why I wrote my first book, The Memory Thief. I am currently at work on a second book about a different neurological disorder. 


I wrote...

The Memory Thief: And the Secrets Behind How We Remember

By Lauren Aguirre,

Book cover of The Memory Thief: And the Secrets Behind How We Remember

What is my book about?

My book is a non-fiction medical mystery that follows a team of doctors as they investigate a severe form of memory loss in fentanyl overdose survivors. I also portray the experience of a patient who helps these doctors, a young man who succumbs to this devastating amnesia. The newly identified amnestic syndrome reveals that opioids have a unique ability to damage the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. This discovery is cause for concern. But at the same time, it suggests new ways that we may be able to protect memory. I also explore the obstacles researchers confront when new ideas collide with conventional wisdom, the elegant tricks scientists use to tease out how memory works, and why researchers now believe a treatment for Alzheimer’s is within reach.

Sufferers and Healers

By Lucinda McCray Beier,

Book cover of Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England

Originally published in 1987 this book is a classic text for those studying health and disease in this era. Drawing on diaries and printed materials it explains what people died of in the era and what conditions they lived with. It describes how people responded to ill health both spiritually and medically and it provides a series of case studies to illuminate different aspects of health, including women’s health. Using practitioners’ casebooks, it thinks about the differences between an urban surgeon and the practice of rural physicians. It thus moves beyond generalizations to show that practitioners worked alongside each other to heal patients drawn from different socio-economic backgrounds and that the practice of medicine was supplemented and relied upon interventions by friends, family, and community.


Who am I?

I’m a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire where I teach early modern history of medicine and the body. I have published on reproductive history in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The history of medicine is endlessly diverse, and there are so many books on early modern medicine, some broad and others more specific, it’s this variety that I find endlessly intriguing. Some conditions from the era, like gout and cancer, are familiar, while others like, greensickness, aren’t recognized any longer. Thinking about these differences and about how people’s bodies ached and suffered helps me to appreciate their relationships, struggles, and triumphs in a whole new dimension.


I wrote...

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

By Jennifer Evans, Sara Read,

Book cover of Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

What is my book about?

Maladies and Medicine offers a lively exploration of health and medical cures in early modern England for anyone curious about the history of the body and the way our ancestors lived. This was an era when tooth cavities were thought to be caused by tiny worms and smallpox by an inflammation of the blood, and cures ranged from herbal potions, cooling cordials, blistering the skin, to of course letting blood. The book’s twenty chapters cover attitudes towards, and explanations of, some of the most common diseases and medical conditions in the period, along with the steps people took to get better.

It explores the body from head to toe, from migraines to gout. Case studies and personal anecdotes taken from doctors’ notes, personal journals, diaries, letters, and even court records show the reactions of individuals to their illnesses and treatments, bringing the reader closer to patients who lived c.400 years ago.

Ill Composed

By Olivia Weisser,

Book cover of Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England

This very readable book recovers the expressions, beliefs, and behaviors of early modern patients. It illuminates how understandings of disease causation, the progress of illness, sickbed experiences, and recovery were expressed in distinctly gendered ways. The richly detailed discussion describes how religious beliefs and social interactions shaped the experience of health and medicine at this time. Weisser draws on over forty diaries and fifty collections of correspondence from the middling and upper levels of society to paint this picture. To illuminate the experiences of the sick poor Weisser turns to pauper petitions, designed to overturn decisions made by overseers of the poor, presented to magistrates at the Quarter sessions of ten locations. It thus reveals the sick lives of those at every level of society.


Who am I?

I’m a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire where I teach early modern history of medicine and the body. I have published on reproductive history in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The history of medicine is endlessly diverse, and there are so many books on early modern medicine, some broad and others more specific, it’s this variety that I find endlessly intriguing. Some conditions from the era, like gout and cancer, are familiar, while others like, greensickness, aren’t recognized any longer. Thinking about these differences and about how people’s bodies ached and suffered helps me to appreciate their relationships, struggles, and triumphs in a whole new dimension.


I wrote...

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

By Jennifer Evans, Sara Read,

Book cover of Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

What is my book about?

Maladies and Medicine offers a lively exploration of health and medical cures in early modern England for anyone curious about the history of the body and the way our ancestors lived. This was an era when tooth cavities were thought to be caused by tiny worms and smallpox by an inflammation of the blood, and cures ranged from herbal potions, cooling cordials, blistering the skin, to of course letting blood. The book’s twenty chapters cover attitudes towards, and explanations of, some of the most common diseases and medical conditions in the period, along with the steps people took to get better.

It explores the body from head to toe, from migraines to gout. Case studies and personal anecdotes taken from doctors’ notes, personal journals, diaries, letters, and even court records show the reactions of individuals to their illnesses and treatments, bringing the reader closer to patients who lived c.400 years ago.

Physick and the Family

By Alun Withey,

Book cover of Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales, 1600-1750

So many history books about medicine in the early modern period focus on London and other English urban centers. Withey’s book allows readers to move beyond the metropolis and glimpse sickness, disease, and medicine in a largely rural setting. It challenges readers to move beyond the concept that rural medicine was dominated by folklore and magic, Wales was not insular or remote but connected to broader medical trends in both Britain and Europe. This book illuminates how the ‘Welsh’ body was perceived: strong, robust, possessed of a hot choleric temperament, and a fondness for toasted cheese. And paints a clear picture of the men who made their living treating these bodies.


Who am I?

I’m a lecturer in history at the University of Hertfordshire where I teach early modern history of medicine and the body. I have published on reproductive history in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The history of medicine is endlessly diverse, and there are so many books on early modern medicine, some broad and others more specific, it’s this variety that I find endlessly intriguing. Some conditions from the era, like gout and cancer, are familiar, while others like, greensickness, aren’t recognized any longer. Thinking about these differences and about how people’s bodies ached and suffered helps me to appreciate their relationships, struggles, and triumphs in a whole new dimension.


I wrote...

Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

By Jennifer Evans, Sara Read,

Book cover of Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740

What is my book about?

Maladies and Medicine offers a lively exploration of health and medical cures in early modern England for anyone curious about the history of the body and the way our ancestors lived. This was an era when tooth cavities were thought to be caused by tiny worms and smallpox by an inflammation of the blood, and cures ranged from herbal potions, cooling cordials, blistering the skin, to of course letting blood. The book’s twenty chapters cover attitudes towards, and explanations of, some of the most common diseases and medical conditions in the period, along with the steps people took to get better.

It explores the body from head to toe, from migraines to gout. Case studies and personal anecdotes taken from doctors’ notes, personal journals, diaries, letters, and even court records show the reactions of individuals to their illnesses and treatments, bringing the reader closer to patients who lived c.400 years ago.

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