Book: The Medical Detectives by Berton Roueché

Excellent series of articles about discovering the answers to medical mysteries

Berton Roueché
The Medical Detectives
Plume, 1991 (originally published in 1988)
405 pages

I've recently read and written about two books about medicine (1, 2). In the first case, I explicitly compared the book to Berton Roueché's writing. And Mr Roueché's articles were certainly in the back of my mind as I read and thought about the second book even though it's up a slightly different alley. A little later, it occurred to me that I might have done those books a disservice. Was Mr Roueché's writing really as good as I remembered? I hadn't read anything by him since reading his articles when they were published in The New Yorker years ago. I got The Medical Detectives so as to revisit those articles and maybe recalibrate my opinions.

I learned two things very quickly after starting The Medical Detectives. The first is that Mr Roueché started writing for The New Yorker long before I started reading it and so there were plenty of articles that were new to me. The second is that Mr Rouché's writing is even better than I remembered it.

The Medical Detectives consists of 25 articles by Mr Roueché all of which appeared in The New Yorker. The earliest article is from 1947. There are five articles from the 1950s, seven from the 1960s, eight from the 1970s, and four from the 1980s. I bring that up not just because it indicates a long career in writing. It's also a period in which enormous progress was made in medicine and public health. The diseases that cause the problems in the early articles aren't ones we hear about much these days. And the sanitary conditions, the conditions in which doctors worked, and the resources that public-health officials had are from a very different era. Thanks to Mr Roueché's long career, we get an indirect view of some compelling history. We're a lot better off than we used to be. For example, in two of the articles, patients undergo electroshock therapy. It's startling to remember how recently that was the best that medicine and psychiatry had to offer many people.

The article from 1947, "Eleven Blue Men", is about a set of poisonings that took place in downtown New York. That city was rather different then and the atmosphere that Mr Roueché captures is quite different from the New York of today. Flophouses then stood near where brokerage houses stand now. Indeed, in all the articles Mr Roueché captures a place's atmosphere and he does it very deftly and almost unnoticeably. His prose is very plain and that's probably one reason that he's able to take the reader clearly and seemingly effortlessly through the chains of supposition, contingency, and evidence that make the unraveling of the mysteries interesting. The book lives up to its title; these articles are pretty well all fascinating detective stories of medicine.

The creator of the television show House, M.D. hasn't made it a secret that he was inspired in part by Mr Roueché's writing, but I wasn't aware of the degree to which the show's writers mined the articles in this book for inspiration. In the first season of House, episode 5 ("Damned if You Do") is related to what happens in the article "Antipathies"; episode 6 ("The Socratic Method") is related to what happens in the article "Live and Let Live"; episode 8 ("Poison") is related to the article "The Dead Mosquitos"; and episode 13 ("Cursed") is related to "A Man Named Hoffman".

Mr Roueché occasionally leaves a medical term unexplained that most folks aren't likely to know, but these days an explanation requires only a trip to Wikipedia.

Posted: Fri - May 11, 2007 at 08:30 PM   Main   Category: