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Dueling Docs

Thomas Isenhour

Great Feuds in Medicine: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. Hal Hellman. xiv + 237 pp. John Wiley and Sons, 2001. $24.95.

Why did neither Jonas Salk nor Albert Sabin ever receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their polio vaccines? If not for her untimely death, would it have been Rosalind Franklin rather than Maurice Wilkins who shared with Francis Crick and James Watson the Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA? Did personality clashes even prevent her from being the lead discoverer? Why was Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis never able to convince the Viennese medical community that doctors were killing their patients by introducing infections through postpartum examinations? He had sound clinical data to explain the extremely high rate of mortality of new mothers but struggled in vain to have his ideas accepted. Before he made the connection, Semmelweis himself would, without washing his hands, go straight from performing an autopsy to examine patients on the maternity ward.

In Great Feuds in Medicine, Hal Hellman (who is also the author of Great Feuds in Science) details the life struggles of several of the greatest medical discoverers of all time—William Harvey, for example, who is immortalized in every college anatomy and physiology course for having shown the circulation of the blood and who endured vicious attacks by leading medical scientists for most of his life. Hellman describes how the personalities of the individuals involved often played a major role in the acceptance or rejection of their work—and how in some cases the irrational disputes probably advanced science, whereas in others they clearly impeded progress.

Around the end of the 18th century, a decades-long dispute, which outlived both the protagonists, raged between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta over whether electricity was generated mechanically or by living systems. Their vitriolic exchanges through lectures, scientific publications and other media laid the groundwork for the development of electromagnetic theory and for the discovery of how the nervous system functions. Each used all his resources to prove the other was wrong, when in reality both were right!

Hellman, with the skill of a novelist and the scholarship of a historian, has written a book that one cannot stop reading. Other chapters detail the "feuds" between Claude Bernard and the physicians, chemists and antivivisectionists who opposed experimental medicine; between Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal over how the neural network functions; and between Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier over the identification of the virus that causes AIDS. Also included are the fights Louis Pasteur had with Baron Justus von Liebig over fermentation, with Felix Pouchet over spontaneous generation and with Robert Koch over the germ theory of disease. And of course no book about medical feuds would be complete without the battle of Jung and others with Freud over psychoanalysis (which continues today, although Freud died in 1939 and Jung in 1961).

Great Feuds in Medicine is an exciting, well-researched work, which should appeal to anyone with an interest in the nature and progress of the human race. My only disappointment was to find there were no more chapters to read.—Thomas L. Isenhour, College of Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia

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