Great Books On Medicine

I recently graduated from Cornell University, and I am planning on attending medical school in the fall. I have always been fascinated by the world of medicine, whether it be the inner workings of the human body or the interactions between doctor and patient. Although I have not yet begun a career in medicine, I have read a few books on the subject, and what follows are some of my favorites. Even if you are not planning a career in a medical field, you may find some of these titles interesting!


Why We Get Sick, by Randolph Nesse and George Williams

This book is the original compilation on evolutionary medicine. What is evolutonary medicine? It's the idea that medical conditions should not be simply cured, but instead examined, to find the underlying cause. If you have a fever, is it a bad thing? Maybe a bacteria is causing your temperature to rise, and you should fight it! But what if it's a defense mechanism against an infection, and fighting the fever will prolong your infection? These are the questions that are examined in this book. The authors run through countless medical conditions, from simple illnesses to genetic conditions, and even diseases of modern society. One interesting section examines the question, "why can't we regenerate limbs?" This book has opened my eyes to the field of evolutionary medicine, and I hope that after reading it, you'll ask yourself, "Why do I get sick?"


The Story of the Human Body, by Daniel Lieberman

This book is a semi-update of "Why We Get Sick." The human body is not adapted for modern life, but instead adapted for life on the savannahs as it lived millions of years ago. Many of the diseases that we suffer from today are caused by an inability to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle full of overly nutritious food. Other books take the approach that we are doomed to suffer because of this imbalance, but Lieberman feels differently. Although we are not adapted for this lifestyle, we can still find ways to prevent these ailments instead of treating them when they arise. He discusses lower back pain due to our new bipedal lifestyle, and foot pain from wearing shoes instead of walking around barefoot. Instead of just treating with medicine and surgery, he suggests that we make changes to ergonomic designs, to work with the bodies we have to present the diseases we might get. I found this book to be a fresh look at the field of evolutionary medicine, and an excellent update and revision of topics initially discussed in "Why We Get Sick."


Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis, by Mels van Driel

There are (surprisingly) few books about the penis. This is the best I've read, written by a urologist. He goes through loads of medical and anatomical information along with cultural, historical, and literature references. Some of the more memorable parts are his descriptions of the inflatable penile prosthesis, or the time a surgeon became so angry he chopped his patient's penis into bits and stormed out of the room (needless to say, he was promptly sued). Each page is full of fun phallus facts to share with your friends. For less penile-centric reading, check out "Bonk" by Mary Roach.


Quirks of Human Anatomy, by Lewis Held

Don't read this book if you're looking for some light reading. It's a dense romp through the world of evolution, genetics, development, and anatomy. The book explains the evolution of the eyes and how they are not the most effective design (click HERE to see an excellent pictoral explanation). He also discusses conjoined twins, vestigial organs, the asymmetrical internal organs, and so much more. The writing can be extremely dense (as evidenced by the thousands of references) but my favorite part were the pictures, which really helped to explain what each section was talking about. I was impressed by how much insight into the development of the human body can be discussed in such a short book. You'll definitely put it down at times and say "huh, I never really thought about that." He has an online companion to the book, which you can find HERE


Trick or Treatment, by Simon Singh

Alternative medicine is a big problem. There have been many claims by proponents of alternative treatments that state they can cure many illnesses, without much evidence to back it up. Singh delves into the evidence that exists and determines the medical truth behind four different treatments: homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractics, and herbal remedies. They discuss how some methods have more truth than others, but overall conventional medicine seems to provide the best treatment. I found this book to be well written and an informative read. His co-author, Dr. Edzard Ernst, is a professor of complementary medicine and has spent his life combing through the evidence both for and against alternative treatments, trying to bring as much of an unbiased approach as possible.

I've only been in the medical field for a couple years, but after speaking with patients and reading these sorts of books, I've developed my own thoughts on the subject. I don't give much weight to alternative treatments, the evidence is by and large against the majority of them. However, people are entitled to spend their money however they see fit. So if someone wants to spend their money on a chiropractor or acupuncturist, then that's their choice. Many of these treatments make people feel good, in the same way that a massage or watching your favorite movie might make you feel better. But people should pay for these treatments with the understanding that these treatments have not been medically validated, they will likely not cure their diseases, they have their own risks, and it may be cheaper to just get a massage and watch a movie.


The Healing of America, by T. R. Reid

America's health care system is extremely convoluted and chock full of issues. If you want to know about what's wrong with our system, and how we can fix it, "The Healing of America" is a great start. Journalist T. R. Reid takes us on a journey to countries around the world, including Britain, Germany, and Japan. Reid gives us two perspectives in his medically-oriented journey. One is a general look at each country's health care, examining both the benefits provided by each system, and the drawbacks that exist. The other view is personal, as he visits doctors in each country for an examination of his shoulder, so that he can compare each system on an individual level. I read this book last summer, and it really opened my eyes to the issues in America's healthcare, along with possible solutions based on the examples set by other countries.


Zoobiquity, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Medical doctors take care of humans, and veterinarians take care of non-human animals; often, they both take care of the same diseases, but in different ways. "Zoobiquity" discusses this disparity, and offers ideas on how both physicians and vets can benefit from each others' knowledge. The book covers many different conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and even eating disorders. The authors show how many of these issues appear throughout the animal kingdom, and there are often other ways that physicians can treat their patients. Many of the ideas come from in-process research that may or may not yield actual results, but they do provoke a lot of thought. "Zoobiquity" shows that humans are not unique in their medical conditions.


Mutants, by Armand Leroi

Many genes work in unison to produce a human body, but these genes can often mutate, causing drastic changes. In this book, Leroi takes a look at individuals who might be considered "mutants," explaining how studying mutations can help us understand how the human body properly functions. He discusses the way the embryo produces a left and right side, and what happens when those genes fail. There is a section on the reproductive system, and what might cause an individual to seemingly switch from one sex to the other. Leroi also mentions gigantism, conjoined twins, and many other mutations. Part of what makes the book enjoyable is that each topic is discussed respectfully, the antithesis to the circus exhibits of the past. It is a very intriguing read, and will make you appreciate the inner workings of our genetic code.


The Medicine Cabinet of Curiosities, by Nick Bakalar

Medicine is full of strange things: strange disorders, strange anecdotes, and strange facts in general. Mr. Bakalar has compiled endless amounts of medical knowledge into this book, which will keep you both entertained and enthralled by the world of medicine. He gives a view of medical history, along with information about medical conditions (including some interesting pictures of historical treatments). My personal favorite section is the complete elemental breakdown of the human body: how much radium does your body actually contain? When you read this book, you will be sure to learn something new about the world of medicine.


It's Not You, It's Biology, by Joe Quick

I'm going to preface this by informing you that Joe Quick has neither medical nor graduate degree. He admits as much, but wrote this book to fill a void on the subject of love, sex, and relationships. His book talks about the reasons why men and women have different ideas about dating, marriage, and other interpersonal relationships. He explains these ideas with information based on evolution. The disparity between men and women is thought to originate between the amount of effort required to produce sperm and eggs. This book makes you think about not only the different attitudes of the sexes, but the different anatomies as well. Some of the sections of the book are not always the most accurate, and some are controversial, but if you keep an open mind it can be extremely thought-provoking.