Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jacalyn Duffin's "Medical Miracles"

Jacalyn Duffin, physician and historian, holds the Hannah Chair for the History of Medicine, Queen's University, Ontario.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World, and reported the following:
In the late 1980s, I was asked to read some bone marrow samples from a single patient over eighteen months ending a decade earlier. It was in a fallow period of my career, and I eagerly accepted, hoping to prove my skills and curious about why a ‘blind witness’ was necessary. The marrows showed aggressive acute leukemia, a short remission, a relapse, and another remission. I assumed that the patient was dead and that, sadly, someone was suing a doctor for malpractice in a condition always marked by short survival--especially after relapse.

My assumptions were wrong – the patient was still alive, but she attributed her cure to the intercession of Marie Marguerite d’Youville. This event eventually became the final miracle in the dossier of d’Youville who was canonized as the first Canadian-born saint in December 1990.

I was surprised by the up-to-date medical science used in that investigation. The historian in me wondered about all the other miracles used in previous canonizations. Was this case typical, or an exception? How many others were healings with medical care? What diseases were cured? Did other skeptical doctors like me have to reconcile themselves to testifying? What were the gestures of appeal to candidates for sainthood, and how did they interact with medical care?

Hoping to find answers to some of these questions, I went to the Vatican Archives where I was given generous access to the canonization records covering the past four centuries. Nearly twenty years and 1400 miracles later, I can say with confidence that over ninety-five per cent of modern miracles entail cures from physical illness; an increasingly high proportion rely on testimony from physicians.

Medical Miracles is the result of that research. It is dedicated to four kind hematologists who were utterly baffled by my taking on such a ‘superstitious’ topic. Their entrenched skepticism helped me write the book--to them and for them together with a reading public of believers and nonbelievers alike.

Page 99 comes near the end of Chapter 3 on the types of diseases cured miraculously and how they changed through time. It concludes the section on miraculous cures of mental illness—never frequent and declining over time. It begins the section on the delicious example of miraculous cures of ‘iatrogenic disease,’ which are ailments caused by doctors—also rare but in contrast, rising through time.
Learn more about Medical Miracles at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue