Book Review: ‘The Masters of Medicine’

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 05-19-2023 1:51 PM

Andrew Lam of Longmeadow has many vocations. He is a retina surgeon and teaches ophthalmology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Before he went to medical school, he trained as a historian – and he continues to write historical books and novels while working as a doctor and a teacher.

His newest book, “The Masters of Medicine: Our Greatest Triumphs in the Race to Cure Humanity’s Deadliest Diseases,” was released last month by BenBella Books. Lam will speak about the book in Northampton on May 24.

The book leads the reader through the work of various (mostly) medical practitioners who searched for ways to battle heart disease, diabetes, bacterial infections, viruses from polio to COVID-19, cancer, trauma, and complications from childbirth.

Despite the optimism of the title, not all the people Lam discusses were masters. Some did selflessly dedicate their lives to curing diseases. Others stumbled across solutions and were smart enough to recognize their achievements.

A few of the stories and their heroes are appalling. Werner Forssman took steps that some would call risky and others would call unethical. Forbidden from trying to insert a catheter into a heart by his superiors, this intern first wooed a young nurse into helping him and then went ahead and experimented on himself.

Francisco de Balmis brought Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine to the Americas in the early 19th century by infecting a group of 22 orphans in sequence with cowpox on the transatlantic voyage. By doing so, he kept the virus going throughout the lengthy journey. He saved many, many lives, but he also exploited young children who had no one to protect them. There are other such stories in the book.

Lam also highlights rivalries that hindered the search for cures as much as they helped. And he dwells on the medical establishment’s resistance to change.

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Many therapies he describes took a long time to be adopted because people were too stubborn to admit that they had been following the wrong path.

Doctors’ reluctance to accept the idea that they needed to sterilize their instruments and themselves before delivering babies or treating wounded soldiers are prime examples.

In short, the book is full of drama. It also abounds with useful information for non-medical people like me. I have known about treatments like chemotherapy and mRNA vaccines for years without understanding anything about how they worked.

Occasionally, Lam gets a little too technical for the lay reader. In general, however, he tells a gripping tale with passion, humor, and sensitivity. He ends his book with a discussion of the possible future of medical breakthroughs.

After reading the book, I wrote to Lam to ask how he manages to be a doctor, a writer, and a family man simultaneously.

“I don’t really have a great answer,” he replied, “except that I think that when you are passionate about something you just make time.

“Yes, I’m busy as a surgeon, father, and in various community volunteering roles, but I really felt passionate about sharing the stories of these medical heroes with a wide audience... The stories are so great that they almost write themselves!

“And my secret hope is that perhaps a young person will read (the book) and become inspired to go into medicine or research – and if only one person does this and discovers something that helps us all someday, then all the effort it took to write the book will be entirely worth it.”

Andrew Lam will speak at the Forbes Library’s Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum in Northampton on Wednesday, May 24, at 6 p.m. His talk, “The Only Winner in War Is Medicine,” will explore the ways in which World War II led to advances in medicine.

For more information about the author and his talk, visit http://www.andrewlammd.com/.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her latest book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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