Friday, February 15, 2008

Roberta Bivins' "Alternative Medicine? A History"

Roberta Bivins is Wellcome Lecturer in the History of Medicine at Cardiff University.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Alternative Medicine? A History, and reported the following:
“Page 99…”, I wondered. “Page 99? Let’s see. It will be somewhere in Chapter 2, so it’s bound to be about homeopathy and mesmerism… That's sex and drugs at least, if not rock and roll. Hey: maybe there’ll be an illustration! I’ll get a chance to see if a picture is worth a thousand of MY words. Neat!” And I crossed my fingers and went to hunt out a copy of my book.

Sadly, there was no picture on page 99, so I couldn’t test that particular truism here. In a way, the absence of an illustration also renders the page less accurate as a reflection of the volume as a whole: I use quite a few images -- not just to make my comparisons of global and alternative medicine prettier, but to open another door on the often-unfamiliar cultures and periods I describe. Page 99 is unusual, too, in that it deals only with western medical culture. Generally, I can be found describing and comparing western and non-western systems and approaches.

On the other hand, page 99 does open with a long and delicious quotation from an ordinary British doctor, responding – reluctantly – to his patients’ demands for homeopathy. Only his impeccable grammar gives away the vintage of the quote: 1827. Otherwise, his reactions are identical to those of so many doctors today irked by their patients’ annoying enthusiasm for alternative medicine. “Such men as these have been requiring me, for the last eighteen months, to try, as they call it ‘Homeopathy’, at which I only smiled incredulously, and I fear, contemptuously.” But like his contemporary counterparts, my 19th century doctor gave in to patient pester-power, and agreed to explore the new system of medicine. He wanted to be fair, and to do his best for his patients, whatever that ‘best’ turned out to be. And he needed their business.

Both the presence of a long quote, and its content fairly represent the book as a whole. I want readers to hear the history speak for itself. Listening to the voices of the past is the best part about being a historian, and it seems cruel to keep them all -- variously grumpy, cantankerous, witty, charming, lugubrious, insightful – to myself. And I want to give readers the material they need to assess my claims. By including so much of the material on which I based my analysis (my doctor’s grumbles fill half of the page), I feel you have a fair chance to make up your own mind, and to apply the experiences of the past to your own individual present. On page 99, as elsewhere in the book, this commitment, at least, is clear. Read on! Decide for yourself: have we learned from the past, or are we busily repeating it?
Learn more about Alternative Medicine? A History at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Roberta Bivins' faculty webpage to read about her research and other publications.

--Marshal Zeringue