A Story Partially Told

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Abstract

Reviews the book, Doctor Franklin's Medicine by Stanley Finger (see record 2006-02647-000). Stanley Finger, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and noted historian of medicine and neuroscience, has ambitiously undertaken to portray Benjamin Franklin as “a significant figure in the world of medicine” (p. xi). Although this thesis may be initially surprising even to those familiar with this American statesman and scientist, Finger assembles an impressive array of evidence to show that medicine was indeed a major concern of Franklin's life, both on a personal level and in his role as a public servant. Finger's book succeeds on many fronts. As implied above, Finger employs a biographical approach to the topic, dividing the book into four parts, each corresponding to a phase of Franklin's life (delimited by his main country of residency). The chapters are topical, dealing with themes such as exercise, smallpox, medical electricity, colds, lead poisoning, mesmerism, medical inventions, the gout, and kidney stones. The approach is imperfect, as Finger freely admits, because Franklin's concerns with some of these topics were not limited to any one phase of his life. Yet, Finger's arrangement always seems appropriate. It should also be said that readers will benefit from this book more if they possess some knowledge of Franklin's interesting life before they read it. Still, newcomers to Franklin will also learn the basic contours of his career and may be thereby encouraged to explore more deeply the fascinating career of an enormously important American. For those with an interest in Franklin as a person, this book is filled with delightful stories related to his dealings with medical issues. Several of the stories having to do with Franklin's passion for swimming, his exchange with Madame Brillon regarding the gout, his interchange with John Adams regarding colds, and his frequent use of naked “air baths” are endearing and give insight into Franklin's personality. Finger is often at his best when describing the historical context for certain medical concerns, such as lead poisoning, the gout, the stone, colds, and so forth. He shows how many 18th-century medical concerns had long histories, and he is masterful at presenting strangesounding medical theories and treatments in a readily understandable manner. Finally, Finger is to be praised for his careful scholarship, marshalling his evidence from Franklin's writings, particularly his correspondence. Aided by a computer disk containing Franklin's correspondence, he has assembled and creatively arranged what seems to be (although almost certainly is not) just about everything that Franklin ever wrote about any medical concern. Thus, this volume is beyond doubt the best and most comprehensive available on Franklin's “forays into medicine” and is likely to remain the standard for years to come.

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