I am not a reviewer of books. I am a consumer of Health Care, and it was
only after rereading Mark Twain and Medicine: "Any Mummery Will Cure."
by K. Patrick Ober, (MD), University of Missouri Press, 2003, that my
one world impinged on the other and I felt the need to speak of this
book to our Forum readers. Our friend "Dr." Kevin Mac Donnell reviewed
this book for the Forum in 2004 and there is very little to add to his
comprehensive survey of Ober's work. At that time, Kevin stated, "Ober's
work will certainly. provoke new insights into some previously accepted
When I consulted with my surgeon, a wise and caring man, he realized
immediately what I needed: a healthy fear of God and a dose of
staphylococcus bacteria. He didn't have any of the microbes on hand at
the clinic where I saw him but he knew where he could lay hands on
plenty, so he sent me to the hospital. There on the operating table I
was given what I needed which when later, the lab confirmed their
success, I was informed that the staph had gone to my heart. It was then
that the healing balm of antibiotics was administered along with the
aforementioned fear of God. The caring men and women of medicine have
always served me well. It is with this, a grateful heart and other
medical mishaps in mind I wish to add the following regarding this book.
You need only know that the first time I read a thing I do it for fun.
The second time through I use the yellow marker and do the underlining.
The third time through I make notes in a notebook and the final read is
when I put important stuff--stuff that will be on the test--on flash
cards. I've finished my second reading of Ober's book and even though I
know better, I want to share two "summaries" with you.
First Read through:
"Excellent. Jolly good read. Can't believe this doctor wrote such a good
book. Terrific addition to the Twain Body of expertise. "
Second Read through:
"Stunning. To read and understand the times in which Twain lived and to
have explained to the reader the primitive level of understanding common
to the so-called medical community of that era is to discover & know how
little we knew then about medicine. But wait, there's more. To read this
book in the year 2009 is to reckon how very little time has passed since
then, and if one is honest with one's self, to fully comprehend how
totally screwed we all are today when we fool ourselves into believing
that today's doctors really know anything about any thing.
If a doctor practices a full forty years we are but three generations
passed the day when healers could easily kill you if you didn't get out
of their way. Seriously, would you trust your child's life into the
hands of a surgeon whose progenitor could fairly say, "Yep, my great
grandpappy bled George Washington to death."? Would you trust the health
of your wife to a physician who could brag, "My dad was a doctor at
Pearl Harbor and they always dressed the burn victims real good with
gauze and Vaseline"? Penicillin, an experimental drug, would not be used
until it was forced to be used in December of 1942 after the Boston
Cocoanut Grove fire left so many horribly burned and suffering.
Yes, medicine has come a long way or so we would like to think, and
Patrick Ober takes you back into the not-so-distant past in a way that
is illuminating and at the same time chilling. It is easy to conjecture
that far less than 100 years from now our grandchildren will marvel at
21st-Century medicine and chuckle, "In the twenty-first century they
still used poison (chemotherapy) on cancer patients. Yes, poison. They
gave it to them intentionally and their hair fell out and they vomited
for days. Isn't that funny?"
Yes, it's very funny, just like bleeding someone to death is funny. But
when you consider that you yourself are living in the twenty-first
century and have oft comforted yourself with remarks such as "Ah, the
marvels of modern medicine"...
We all believe in modern medicine, we all hope for rapid advancements;
after all, it might one of our kids who grows up and finds a cure for
Dr. Ober gives us more than a glance over our shoulders at the past, and
makes us intelligently shudder to contemplate that we might well have
need of putting a family member, a loved one, into the hands of
To know Twain and to love Twain is good. To understand him in the time
he lived is better. To remain ignorant, however, whether it be of
anatomy, the dangerous currents that lie just beneath the surface of the
river or how perilously close we live to iatrogenic death is best of
You can't understand Twain if you don't understand his Times, just as
you can't understand the Beatles if you don't understand Beatlemania.
Dr. Mac Donnell and I concur: Rx: read Ober's book and you will be
repaid ten times over. Twain loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, and with a
love like that, you know you should be glad.
In Minnesota---The Place Where Nothing is Allowed