Short Booknotes

Elizabeth A. Dauncey and Sonny Larsson, Plants that Kill. A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-691-17876-9.

These two large and lavishly illustrated volumes are complementary to each other: whereas the first is a history of the plant world, the second is about toxic species. How Plants Work is a step by step evolutionary of plant species, with multiple side bars on specific aspect of plants, from the phytogenetic of all the major types of plants to the origin of plant breeding or, to mention just a few, ethnobotany and the so-called Codex Badianus reporting the Aztec traditional uses of plants for both alimentary and medicinal purposes. A substantial index allows for transverse readings of this fascinating macro-history of the universe of plants. Plants that Kill is, in a certain sense, an appendix of the previous. Its general concept is very similar, as is also its abundant corpus of splendid colour illustrations. After two introductory chapters devoted to the evolutionary mechanisms that have led to the production of toxic substances and the targets of such substances in the human body, it proceeds in seven chapters each of which deals with a toxic action/a target: the cardiac system, the grain, muscles, joints and articulations, skin, the digestive system, systemic poisoning, and cell poisoning. A further chapter is about the therapeutic use of toxicity, that is, the medicinal uses of plants. Each such analytical chapter is made of a set of monographs on relevant plants that most often includes the history of the plant and its analysis in both traditional knowledge and modern science.

Alain Touwaide 


Joshua D. Mezrich, When Death Becomes Life. Notes from a Transplant Surgeon. New York, NY: Harper, 2019. ISBN: 978-0-06-265620-9.

Under its paradoxical title, this first-person reflection on the activity of a transplant surgeon goes together with a history of transplantation over the past century. Following the evolution of transplantation from kidney and skin to heart and liver and pancreas, it then pursues with a diptych on the two sides of transplantation: the donor and the receiver to conclude with an interrogation on the future of transplantation, including the cross-species transplantation. Chapter are built around case studies, without being, however, reports of clinical cases, but lively stories of actors interacting with each other in a dialogue that goes beyond the relationship between physician/patient. As this indicates, this is not a history of transplantation from the so-called "Miracle of the black leg" by the holy healers Kosmas and Damianos, but a witness about transplantation in the 20th century that reads as a narrative leading to a reflection on the powers and limits of current medicine

Alain Touwaide 


Matthew James Crawford, The Andean Wonder Drug. Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-8229-4452-2. 

This history of the exploitation of Cinchona bark (= Cinchona officinalis L.) as an anti-malarial agent is divided into two major parts: the discovery, harvesting, and possible improvement of the plant for medical uses by the Spaniards in the Andes, and the attempts to assimilate this foreign product into the practice and theory of medicine in Spain. Interestingly enough, the analysis reaches a negative conclusion: using a natural product as an instrument of an empire did not reach the objective, but contributed, instead, to generate a botanical and medical knowledge that transcends the boundaries of polities. The narrative is followed by an important corpus of endnotes, a substantial bibliography and a detailed index allowing for transverse reading.

Alain Touwaide 


Thomas A. Cavanaugh, Hippocrates' Oath and Asclepius' Snake. The Birth of the Medical Profession. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-19-067367-3.

The content of this small-size book is best expressed by its cover: whereas the illustration represents Achilles treating Telephus' wound with the spear that caused the wound, the title stresses the professional nature of medicine and refers to Hippocrates' Oath. A philosopher, Cavanaugh sees a shift from the wounder who treats the wound he inflicted, to the physician is only a healer, and even a professional one. On this basis, the author delves with great detail into the nature of the Oath, which is a proper contract that opened the medical profession to apprentices coming from non-medical families. Step by step, Cavanaugh dissects the text of the Oath to identify all its deep ramifications and its role as identifier of the medical profession. This is a book to be meditated upon rather than just read.

Alain Touwaide 

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