Belofsky (The Book of Strange and Curious Legal Oddities) conjures horror and hilarity—sometimes at the same time—in this cheeky history of 2,400 years of doctors doing “more harm than good” and occasionally fumbling their way toward “Eureka!” Readers will be surprised to learn that some very important medical discoveries were near misses. Dr. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, for example, lay moldering for a decade before scientists developed it into a lifesaving antibiotic. Of course, there are plenty of medical adventures that, alas, failed to advance knowledge of the subject: one medieval physician prescribed swaddling torture victims in the skin of a “newly killed animal.” His most sage counsel? “If he is dead... do not attempt to treat.” Belofsky notes, however, that medicine sunk to its lowest point during its “Heroic Era.” In the late 1700s, Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, would strap patients to chairs, hang them from the ceiling, and spin them “like tops for hours on end.” Modern medics weren’t much kinder. In 1946, Dr. Walter Freeman introduced lobotomies, using ice picks from his kitchen to perform the procedure, and packing up the wife, kids, and picks for summer tours of national parks while he did surgeries at local hospitals. Makes a shot in the rear seem like a walk in the park with Dr. Walt. Agent: Janet Rosen, Sheree Bykofsky Associates Inc. (July 2)
Nathan welcome to my blog.
Tell us about Strange Medicine A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through The Ages.
From the time of Hippocrates until relatively recently, the medical profession did more harm than good. My book documents medicine’s hidden misadventures, beginning with the Babylonians and ending with medicine’s reckless “Heroic Era” (1780-1850), when even the most respected of doctors wreaked havoc on their patients and in general became medical wrecking balls. The book’s a short, breezy read, but also historically accurate and rigorously researched.
This is not your first “Strange” book, you’ve written previously The Book of Strange and Curious Legal Oddities. Are there more strange things you want to explore in the future?
I do seem to have an affinity for the strange, and I’m sure I’ll come up with something…
Was it difficult researching these medical practices of the past?
The research was daunting. Medieval manuscripts, obscure textbooks, centuries-old medical journals; the (highly condensed) bibliography runs over twenty pages. I’m grateful to the folks at the New York Academy of Medicine, in whose stacks I spent long hours, and to Lindsey Fitzharris, the Oxford-trained medical historian that vetted the manuscript.
In your findings what was the most surprising of your medical discoveries?
Patients of Hippocrates, 2500 years ago, almost surely got better medical treatment than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, not to mention the average citizen! A perfect example is Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Treasurer of the Mint and the most respected doctor of his time. He beat, starved and spun his mentally ill patients like tops, hoping to get the blood flowing to their brains. His likeness still adorns the seal of the American Psychiatric Association.
What was the catalyst that led to your writing these books?
I heard someone say that while things like science, art and technology leapt forward over the years, medical practice went absolutely nowhere, and maybe even got worse. This struck me as strange, and I began checking things out…
Is there a target audience for this book?
I’d say fans of history or medicine or biography, and anyone who appreciates offbeat, interesting little tidbits. The chapters are short, so you can just pick it up and put it down, or go right to whatever interests you.
What is your day job?
I’m a lawyer, practicing in Manhattan. This is more fun.
Are you a reader? What types of books/authors do you enjoy?
Currently I’m reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smollen. I don’t understand most of it, but find it fascinating anyway. I most love getting lost in a great novel. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is a big favorite, but most recently I’ve read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and they’re all terrific. I just started The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.
Nathan you have a twitter and facebook page. What part do these venues play in getting the word out about your books?
My website, strangemedicine.com, is a perfect introduction to the book and to (slightly twisted) medical history in general. It has a medical timeline, one that you probably didn’t learn in school, and a Cabinet of Curiosities, which contains some exceedingly strange medical devices.
Are you planning any signings or events to showcase the release of this book?
I’ll be doing tons of radio, and a fun slide show for the Huffington Post. I’m thrilled that foreign rights have been sold, and hopefully there’s more to come.
Thank you Nathan for taking the time to chat with me today. Good luck with the new book!
Visit Nathan's website here