For some reason, I never skip the first chapter or the preface of my medical textbooks (hello bookworms). I don’t mind skipping chapter 9, chapter 57, or even chapter 120 as long as I have read and understood the first precious pages.
You’ll be amazed why.
Chapter 1 (or in some textbooks the Preface) discuss about the history and development of the particular field the textbook is all about (i.e. surgery). On some instance, you’ll also find true-to-life stories how the book was written, what inspired the author, etc.
As students whose aim is to pass, we deem these facts as unimportant or only nice-to-know. But to an individual who is curious and prioritizes learning over grades, these are treasure.
Here are few examples (which, to be honest, fascinated me).
Guyton and Hall Textbook of Physiology – I always pitied Hall because medical students always give credit to Guyton and less often than not Hall is out of the picture (seriously no one even knows who Hall was). But then the precious preface of the textbook unveiled to me the tragic story of the genius that is Dr. Guyton. He was the primary author of the textbook and Dr. Hall was his apprentice. In 2003 Dr. Guyton died in a tragic automobile accident. Since then Dr. Hall took responsibility of revising and writing succeeding editions of the said textbook.
Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy – Dr. Frank Netter was an artist with a degree from National Academy of Design before he took up medicine. While in medschool, his professors gained interest on the sketches and illustrations in his notebooks. He used to sideline as an illustrator in several articles and textbooks. He underwent surgical training and served in the US Army during WWII. He continued illustrating until several requests from colleagues inspired him to publish an atlas.
“No matter how beautifully painted, how delicately and subtly rendered a subject may be, it is of little value as a medical illustration if it does not serve to make clear some medical point.” -Dr. Frank Netter (1949)
Sabiston Textbook of Surgery – I love chapter 1 of this book. It discusses how the practice of surgery evolved through “knife-bearers” — wandering vagabonds and physicians alike. It traces the history of this ever evolving medical field since the 14th century. It also discusses key individuals who contributed to the advancement of the profession.
It told of the story of Andreas Vesalius who stepped to the forefront of anatomic human studies despite the controversial church ban on human dissection during that time. After pursuing further medical studies abroad, his ship wrecked and got stranded during his return voyage. He died on an island due to starvation and several illnesses. That’s a tragic story for an individual who established foundational knowledge on human anatomy!
On the latter part of the chapter, gender-religious-race diversity was discussed. I was surprised how women were once restricted to obtain surgical training. Not until Dr. William Williams allowed a small cadre of women surgeons to exist back in 1800s. On 1900s, Dr. Olga Jonasson stepped up to encourage more women to enter the male-dominated world of surgery.
The chapter ends with these beautiful words of Ira Rutkow, “if surgeons in the future wish to be regarded as more than mere technicians, members of the profession need to appreciate the value of its past glories better. Study our history. Understand our past. Do not allow the rich heritage of surgery be forgotten.”
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine – What I love about the first chapter of this book is the introductory quotation from the 1950 edition of the book. It goes like this:
“No greater opportunity, responsibility or obligation can fall to the lot of a human being than to become a physician…
…In the care of the sufferring, the physician needs technical skill, scientific knowledge, and human understanding…the patient is no more collection of symptoms, signs, disordered functions, damaged organs, and disturbed emotions. He is human, fearful, and hopeful, seeking relief, help and reassurance.”
Now these words are the very essence of medicine. Any aspiring physician and already practicing physician should know this by heart. This is our profession’s crede.
Here’s a random trailer (not from chapter 1): when you read Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, you’ll be amused how he randomly drops punch lines and jokes amid medical texts. Like how a trip to the jewelry store would suffice the unfulfilled quest to heal a broken heart.
Lastly, I’d like to know if you’ve ever wondered why almost all Anatomy books are named after Henry Gray? I always did. Until I found this book from iBooks. It’s called The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy by Bill Hayes. I’m only halfway through the book so I think it’d be bias for me to give a review. Nevertheless, Bill Hayes himself was an anatomy student and he explored via personal experience the significance of Gray’s Anatomy and its impact to Medicine. Spoiler: he uncovered some forgotten letters and diaries written by Henry Gray himself.
I could list more textbooks, prefaces and chapter ones in this blog post but I’ll leave that to your curiosity. And I hope this would inspire you (fellow medical students) to read your textbooks (of course, not just chapter 1). These are precious gems of knowledge within our reach but we often take for granted. Remember, you can never go wrong with books.