Euro Reviews: ‘Medicine – A Graphic History’ Is Part Historical Journey & Part Anecdotal Insight

by Richard Bruton

In Medicine: A Graphic History, surgeon and professor of medical history, Jean-Noël Fabiani, together with artist Philippe Bercovici attempt to cover the entire history of medicine in just over 200 pages. What you get is a detailed, entertaining, anecdote-filled book that manages the impossible and genuinely does give us the history of medicine.

Well, this one came along at exactly the right time, seeing as we’ve all been just that little bit more concerned with medicine of late.
Dr Jean-Noël Fabiani is the head of cardiac surgery at George Pompidou European Hospital, Paris and a professor at the Paris-Descartes University, where he spent a decade teaching the history of medicine. And Philippe Bercovici is the cartoonist best known for 39 volumes of the medical misadventures of The Women in White. So you can hardly accuse either man of not having put the necessary work in over the years to publish this one.
And, without any criticism at all, the book is exactly what you expect it to be, no more and no less.
That is, of course, if you were expecting something wonderfully educational and exceptionally readable.

Across 21 chapters, we’re taken from the dawn of time to the present day, each chapter given a short text intro from Fabiani.
Amongst the stops along the way, you’ll experience such delights as epidemics, anaesthesia, mental illness, cellular biology, and ending up, quite rightly really, with ‘A Few Modern Plagues,’ although it does pull up short of the current plague besetting us all, given that this was originally published in the French in 2018, so we end with Ebola…

It’s presented as part historical journey, part anecdotal insights, funny at times, mildly shocking at others, yet continually illuminating and insightful all the way through.
Of course, the very nature of what they’re attempting to do, distilling every major moment of medical progress, along with the many wrong turns, misguided notions, and ill-informed ideas, does necessitate that this is a book that races along, something of new note practically every single panel.
So, whilst it’s almost always successful in doing what it sets out to do, there’s occasionally a sense of it developing into just a series of connected anecdotes. It’s unavoidable in many ways, cramming so much into the book was always going to have the risk of every page throwing so much information at you. However, although it is anecdotal heavy, oft times they’re also wonderful, incredible, often ridiculous anecdotes and there’s never a sense of merely getting a huge info-dump.
Of course, the other way of looking at it, and it’s a way that also works, is that the enjoyment here is actually through all of the weird and wonderful anecdotes through the book.
Such as this one… the fact that the clergy’s traditional role of also practising medicine was halted by the 12th Century Church’s obsession with saving souls leading it to ditch medicine, meaning the next to take up the sharp instruments of surgery ended up being the barbers – they had the pointy sharp instruments after all.

And it wasn’t really until Louis XIV getting a literal pain in the posterior – an anal fistula – that saw an elevation of surgeons once more.
And as an aside, a composition beseeching God to have pity on the King inadvertently became God Save The King, thanks to the future King of England overhearing it.

See, the anecdotes are quite wonderful. But there is that minor nagging concern that I kept getting all the way through the book that it’s just going too fast, delivering too much, and by attempting that it just goes too fast and by virtue of it being a zip through medical history it just has the same beats, page after page after page. Of course, one way to get around this is simply to treat it as a part work, hit a chapter a night – that way you’ll get all the joys in the book with none of the, admittedly small, problems.
But back to the good stuff – one thing it does do wonderfully well is highlight the global development of medicine. It’s far from a Western-centric history, instead featuring the huge amounts of medical advancement that came from the East, particularly Persia, China, and the massive strides brought to medical science by the Muslim world during the middle ages. Whilst the Western world fell into medieval darkness as ancient texts vanished, were destroyed, or were lost, the Muslim world spread knowledge, insight, and enlightenment through the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
Case in point, Ibn al-Nafis was a philosopher and scholar in Cairo who described lesser circulation in the first half of the 13th Century, a full three centuries before Servetus. It’s one of so many moments in Medicine that truly shows us the debt we owe to scholars, philosophers, and medical practitioners the world over.

As for Bercovici’s artwork, well you can see just how light, funny, and just plain good it is from the examples you’ve seen so far. It’s very much in that whole Euro comedic form, not surprisingly as that’s where he’s been plying his artistic trade for decades.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly who it reminded me of, but then I saw this lovely comedic moment early on…

That’s Iznogoud, the ridiculously power-mad Grand Vizier who really, really wants to be the Caliph of Baghdad instead of the Caliph of Baghdad. And yes, Jean Tabary’s art for that is an obvious touchstone…

But then again, you could name a half-dozen others from the world of Euro comics whose art can be seen in that Bercovici.
It’s a great book, unbelievably far-reaching in its scope, yet managing at every turn, every subject, every chapter to bring us more and more fascinating facts of the entire history of medicine through the ages. It’s a book that attempted to do the nigh on impossible and give us the entirety of medical history in just 200+ pages. Yes, there’s a few problems along the way, mostly down to the fact that it attempts so much and the only way of delivering that is to make everything super-fast and super-concise, but those are really minor things.
Overall, it’s a great book that manages to do exactly what it sets out to do – delivering the incredible history of medicine through the ages in a delightful, comedic, informed, and highly entertaining fashion.
Medicine – A Graphic History. Written by Jean-Noël Fabiani, art by Philippe Bercovici, colours by Isabelle Lebeau, translation by Edward Gauvin. Published by SelfMadeHero, 2020.

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