Nov 17, 2010

Book Review: The Professor of Secrets

Eamon, William
National Geographic, 2010
368 pages

The mailboxes at my university office and house regularly fill up with more books than I could ever possibly read, let alone review, and there are times when I stare at the growing stacks of unread texts and feel almost guilty at the collecting dust. Then I grab a duster and the guilt dissipates, while the books often wind up on shelves, lonely reminders of unfinished business.

Yet there was something about William Eamon's The Professor of Secrets that immediately jumped out at me, and I found myself quickly hooked by the story of 16th century surgeon and alchemist Leonardo Fioravanti. Eamon, who is the Regents Professor of History and dean of the Honors College at New Mexico State University, crafted a highly entertaining work of medical history that reads like a novel, and the book is the rare text that can be appreciated by scholars as much as general readers.

Fioravanti was as much a showman as a healer, and his barnstorming brand of medicine contrasted sharply with the highly theoretical world of Renaissance physicians. Surgeons as well as physicians in the 16th century were quite different from their modern counterparts, and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Professor of Secrets involves Eamon's inclusion of standard medical treatments for common ailments. Syphilis patients might be subjected to a regimen of highly toxic substances such as mercuric oxide by the likes of Fioravanti, while the "wonder drug" known as theriac - which had its origins in the classical world - might be prescribed for almost any acquired illness or ingested poison. Of course, these "cures" might be even worse than the conditions for which they were administered, but this was a world just entering the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution.

The Professor of Secrets will delight as much as the book will edify, and I highly recommend this intriguing look at early modern medicine. The book contains thorough footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and quite a few illustrations and images that further enhance the textual narrative.

1 comment:

microdot said...

Must find this book!
One of the family heirlooms I have somehow ended up with was a surgeons blood letting lancet, in a tortoise shell handle, made from a retractable dorsal spine of type of salt water fish...a lancet fish.
My ancestor, was a Canadian doctor who married an Indian woman named Netto, she is my great great great grandmother.
I have had a fascination with medical techniques and theories that predate our modern ideas...
Much ancient medicine was empirical, based on centuries of observation. Perhaps this is why I find oriental medicine so fascinating.