When I was in pharmacy school, the most coveted reference books were the ones which placed a wealth of information at your fingertips. The Drug Information Handbook offered what you’d need to know about any available drug, from pharmacological use to dosage to adverse reactions. The Merck Manual, too, listed just about every disease imaginable and provided enough of a description to let me, like a good hypochondriac, believe that I’d contracted every one of them. I’ve been out of pharmacy school for a while now, but there is a new medical resource that I’d add to the list, the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Medicine.
This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly caters to a different kind of medical knowledge: the history of medicine. It features doctors who are also writers, patients who reflect on their medical treatments, and fictional depictions of botched procedures. One could call the issue a humanist’s guide to medicine, as much of what’s chronicled focuses on the human experience of illness, cures, and pharmaceuticals. William Carlos Williams tells how being a doctor gives him access to the intimate lives of patients, which in turn informs his writing. Former president of Doctors Without Borders, James Orbinski, writes about treating scores of maimed patients after an attack during the Rwandan genocide. Anatole Broyard wishes his doctor were a man of letters who nursed his spirit as well as his physical body. Also, there are instances of quackery, body snatching, and bloodletting. The miscellany includes old treatments that would now be considered outrageous, such as a Womb Spell to cure a moving womb—considered a cause of hysteria—and a curative spell that involves writing the word abracadabra on a piece of paper and wearing it on a string around one’s neck.
Lapham’s Quarterly derives its name from its founding editor, Lewis Lapham, who edited Harper’s magazine over a span of thirty years. It’s no surprise, then, that there are parallels between the way the two publications are organized. The issue opens with an essay written by Lapham, and the main body consists of excerpts that remind me of the Readings section in Harper’s, only more focused. The excerpts date as far back as 2650 BC and come from sources all over the globe. They are divided into subsections about symptoms and diagnoses, doctors and patients, and remedies and treatments. There are selections from Hippocrates, Galen, and Maimonides, interspersed with accounts, both fictional and non, from writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Ken Kesey, and Jean-Dominique Bauby. Lapham should be considered as much a curator as an editor, it seems, for one gets the sense that he and his team have scoured a library’s bookshelves to compile this volume.
Original essays are also featured. Meehan Crist, the reviews editor for the Believer, writes about holding a human brain in her hands, and reflects on the way that watching a dissection challenges one’s perception of the human body. An essay by John Crowley, which is available in its entirety on the website, explains his theory of death (and hence, of the nature of life), which is inspired by the historical figure Giordano Bruno (who plays a lead role in one of Crowley’s novels). What first seemed like an endpoint in itself has now become a starting point. As I close the pages, I have a new list of books to read, including Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness, a posthumously published memoir about his experience as a patient with metastisized prostate cancer, as well as Bulgakov’s autobiographically inspired short stories contained in Country Doctor’s Noteboook. If as Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” there’s enough tinder here to ignite a blaze.