Mark Jackson has edited a book which will be valued by social historians, those engaged in medical humanities and general readers. It is clearly a new ‘handbook’ and as such is not a replacement for Bynum and Porter's Encyclopaedia of the History of Medicine, but is rather an updated overview of medical history, written by some of the scholars responsible for pushing the disciplinary boundaries. It will have a shorter shelf-life than the Encyclopaedia, if only because it explicitly intends to offer suggestions for future scholarship – a surefire way to date the work, when it becomes clear which suggestions will be adopted, and which will languish. The book's value lies in its scope, of both content and diversity of approach.
Topics in medical history are divided into three sections: chronological periods, geographically defined traditions and thematic approaches. The first of these sections is the simplest and the shortest, occupying a little over 100 pages and categorizing activity into familiar periods of ancient, medieval, early modern and divisions of modern history. The second section is rather longer and is genuinely global, so readers can profit from an editorial policy which does not put western medicine first and where western European and North American medicine occupy less than 20 per cent of the available pages. I particularly appreciated the ability to read a concise survey of, for example, medicine in South Asia alongside a comparable (if not explicitly comparative) treatment of Australia and New Zealand. Islamic medicine also supplies one chapter, although it is the only faith-based rather than geographically based approach in this section.
Over half of the book is concerned with the third, thematic section, and while this seems appropriate it does mean that western medicine predominates, since the research specialities of most contributors of these chapters focus on Britain, north-western Europe or America. Themes run from life-cycle stages and death to a cluster of chapters on demography, public health and the state, before considering overarching issues including gender, sexuality and the law. This long section concludes with chapters that pick up hot contemporary topics such as interspecies medicine, heterodoxy or holism, and emerging sources/products of medical-historical enquiry such as the use of oral interviews and film. These themes provide fertile ground for anticipations of future scholarship. One highlight among many is the speculation at the end of a chapter on ‘Health, Work and Environment’ that we might reasonably ‘look forward to a health history of places … and … an ecological history of the human body’.
A number of threads recur in the chapters in a way which suggests they were not artificially injected into the narrative but emerge in multiple independent ways. The impact of the AIDS virus is significant to essays aside from ‘Health and Sexuality’. The call for more edited texts is heard beyond ‘Medieval Medicine’. The combination of a broad approach and common coincidental themes is impressive and is a consequence of the many authors' serious and comprehensive engagement with current issues. Some of the chapters in all three sections provide excellent syntheses of recent work, while evidently working within a tight word limit and not simply by following any formula. Ironically one drawback of the book, so far as I can see, derives from these indications of independence, in that authors' different interpretations of their brief does give rise to some unevenness; unsurprisingly, some chapters are better than others. As a reviewer I should of course reveal which ones I think are problematic; however, this would be invidious in context, given the breadth of the enterprise represented by the Handbook and the brevity of a review. It would be unfair to single out a chapter for criticism without surveying the separate merits of all thirtyfour. Suffice it to say that some chapters are notably superficial, or overambitious giving rise to mere lists of phenomena, while others assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. The other, minor, concern relates to the neglect of some areas which are coincidentally avoided by all contributors. For instance, there is a very welcome subheading within the chapter on aging about menopause, but no concomitant one for menstruation anywhere else.
This book will be on my shelf from now onwards, and I'll be referring to it often, for teaching, research and in recommending individual chapters to colleagues. Collectively the community of medical historians might just want to schedule another edition for around 2027.