When I was younger, medical history was not my forte. But as the years have ticked on and my own health concerns loom on the horizon, I’ve found myself wondering about how the current state of medicine came to be. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything was my first earnest, prolonged trip into medical history, and I was more than pleasantly surprised at its casual language and engaging narrative. There were some elements that left something to be desired, however.
Authored by Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen, Quackery takes a segmented, structured approach to discussing the various methods and madness humans have labeled “medicine” throughout history.
Individually, each section was as strong as the last and just as engaging. The casual writing style makes for an entry point that is accessible to all interested, even only vaguely, in medical history. The authors’ exploration of the history and reasoning for certain practices was also pithy enough to put later information in context, without burdening the text to the point of becoming uninteresting.
On a more personal level, I found myself most interested in the surgery, lobotomy, fasting, and hydrotherapy sections, as all of these practices are in common use today, although in a much better-understood context than they were one hundred fifty years ago. (The story of the oldest Kennedy child, Rosemary, being lobotomized when she was fairly young also stuck with me. And surgeons taking pride in how fast they could hack off a limb? Y i k e s.)
With all of this said, however, there are many instances where the casual, engaging writing transitions rather awkwardly into jokes that were often mildly funny at best, with a few that seemed awkward and jolting at worst. (I also know I am certainly not the first reviewer to take note of this.) Humor definitely helped me remember more salient points, but much of it could be trimmed and the book would not be negatively impacted in the slightest.
There also seems to be a fine line between using humor and detracting from the weight of what is being read, though this line is crossed rarely.
Overall, I’d recommend this for those who are interested in how the human body works, and even just history in general. Quackery does a fantastic job of setting the stage of where we’ve been, what current quackery is still in practice (often labeled as “alternative medicine”), and where we might go in the future.
All that remains certain is how little we know, and Quackery highlights this fact in an engaging, self-aware way that makes for a fast, enjoyable read. In all, I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.
Note: I purchased this book independently.