Your health

30th September 2005 at 01:00
KS3-5 science and history

History of Medicine By Robert Richardson and Hilary S Morris Quiller Press pound;16.95 Tel: 01939 261616

The history of human health and sickness is full of fascination for learners of all ages. How did people cope with disease in the past? When were the key turning points in the history of medicine? Why did treatment change, stay the same or get worse at different points in time? These questions help put some of our current health concerns in their proper historical perspective.

History of Medicine takes a quirky approach to the subject. To provide a "pain-free grounding" in the history of medicine the authors create an imaginary character, Paul Baldassare, a 16-year-old from Mesopotamia with a gift for languages and a fascination for medicine. The book tells the story of Baldassare's journey through time with his know-all mate from Ancient Greece, Telephorous. This device enables the authors to tell the story of medicine through a series of imaginary encounters with the movers and shakers - from Imhotep to Robert Koch.

At the end of each chapter, commentaries supply background that students require in order to appreciate the conversations. The authors provide additional historical background in the form of timelines, maps and sources.

This mixture of time-traveller fiction with fact is an intriguing approach, but contains some inherent difficulties. Journeying through time with a Mesopotamian physician and his Greek companion whom, we find out, "knows the past but has also visited the future" leads to some chronological confusion. In addition, the combination of imaginary narrative and textbook explanation may leave some readers feeling frustrated that they are reading neither an intriguing historical novel nor an informative and accessible textbook.

These problems aside, History of Medicine does help us get to grips with the complex and fascinating story of developments in sickness and health.

It is rich in detail and full of insight and successfully sets medical advances within a wider cultural context.

Most GCSE history students would find History of Medicine tough going, but their teachers could use individual chapters as the basis for role-play or revision. Many older students will find pleasure and pain-free learning in this Dr Who approach to the history of medicine.

Michael Riley is senior lecturer in history education at Bath Spa University College and a member of the Historical Association's secondary education committee

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