Culture

After 'The Knick': 7 Fascinating Books on the History of Medicine

Eric Johnson, Eve Hewson, Clive Owen in ‘The Knick’/Image © Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

In case it's not made its way to your radar yet, Steven Soderbergh ("Behind the Candelabra," "Side Effects," "Magic Mike," "Ocean's Eleven") has a new series beginning on Cinemax on August 8. Set in early 1900s Manhattan, the show will follow a cast of surgeons, doctors, and nurses led by Clive Owen's Dr. John W. Thackery. Says the show's website: "It is centered on the Knickerbocker Hospital and the groundbreaking surgeons, nurses, and staff who work there, pushing the bounds of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics." Drama and history and guts, oh my. In July, Cinemax picked up "The Knick" early for renewal for a second season, which Soderbergh also intends to direct.

Soderbergh is the director of the entire first season. Season one began filming in 2013 in Brooklyn, not far from the original "Knickerbocker," a Harlem hospital founded in the late 1800s as a dispensary for injured men returning from the Civil War. It was named the Knickerbocker in 1913, and was, at one time, a "leader in the treatment for polio and also had one of the largest ambulance districts in the city."

The hopes for this show are high -- and with good reason, given the incredible wealth of subject matter available to the show's writing team, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Still, with only ten episodes in season one, the challenge to cover everything interesting about medicine at the turn of that century will be impossible. Don't worry about your own blood pressure though, as there are so many works of nonfiction on the very subject of the history of medicine that are both informative -- and wildly entertaining. So as you keep up with season one of this exciting new show, get going on as many other facets of modern medicine and how we got here as you choose. Here are a few recommendations for where to start.

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery, by Richard Hollingham
Richard Hollingham, author of How to Clone the Perfect Blonde, turns his scientific side to surgery in Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery. From the early operating theaters to the inception of antiseptics and anesthesia, Hollingham presents a riveting history of what brought us to the advanced place in which you and I are lucky enough to exist today.

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD
Cancer was first identified more than 4,000 years ago, and so this is where Siddhartha Mukherjee begins his 2010 book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It's a commitment of a tome -- and one certainly worth working your way through. Mukherjee's informative and entertaining narrative covers every aspect of cancer -- from its grave history to its hopeful future -- in a way that is accessible rather than overwhelming. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2011.

Stiff: The Curious Life of the Human Cadaver, by Mary Roach
No one does nonfiction like Mary Roach. She's smart, candid, and hilarious. Her books' topics range from sex to the supernatural to space to gastrointestinal. In Stiff, she becomes intimate with the topic of death, and what happens to the body upon dying. In her exploration, she examines modern medicine and the history that brought us to it. And, of course, the countless cadavers who posthumously contributed to these studies.

Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead, by David Casarett, MD
David Casarett takes Roach's studies a step farther, answering the question, What happens when dead isn't the right outcome? In other words, what of resuscitation? How does it happen and why and when? Dr. Casarett's story takes us as far back as the late 1700s, to the first documented revival of a corpse. He, too, is side-splittingly funny in his writing, injecting interesting anecdotes -- and his own jokes and asides -- into Shocked.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Bloom
In New York in the early twentieth century, there was, apparently, a substantial need for - and utilization of - poison. In the crime-ridden city, homicide was rampant - and criminals were dependent upon this no-clean-up-required method of murder. Enter, in 1918, Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris accompanied by toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together, the two founded forensic chemistry - and changed this poisonous method of madness forever.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
The 1800s. Germs were rampant, medicine was not advanced. This was not a good time for President James A. Gardner, as the aforementioned conditions of the century coincided with an assassin's attempt on his life. Following the shooting, Garfield lived for two months. Ultimately, what killed him was not a bullet; it was his doctors' methods.

Vintage Sacks, by Oliver Sacks
Dr. Oliver Sacks is perhaps one of our most brilliant thinkers in terms of contemporary health. His research and writings have brought us such poignant studies of the human condition as Awakenings (later adapted to the movie starring Robin Williams), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia. This particular book, Vintage Sacks, is a fantastic introduction to this medical anthropologist and all that his mind has to offer us.