Ask anyone in the Johns Hopkins history of medicine department and they will tell you that summer is the time to catch up on all the reading they can’t do during the semester. Some of us have found our favorite books in the summer.

Need a jump-start on your own reading? Check out these titles we love!

Interested in mosquitoes, malaria and fantasy novels?

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Johns Hopkins history of medicine grad student Anna Weerasinghe loves this one. Based on Victorian epidemiologist Ronald Ross’ discovery of malarial transmission, Ghosh tracks the journey of fictional medical researcher L. Murugan as he searches for the Calcutta Chromosome — genetic material from the malarial parasite that could heal any disease and confer eternal life. Along the way, we meet mysterious characters wrapped up in a convoluted conspiracy. Though sometimes too detailed, this medical thriller both enlightens the mind and captures the imagination.

Interested in American slavery and medical experimentation?

Medical Bondage by Diedre Cooper Owens

In 2017, two major events happened: New York City took down its statue of James Marion Sims, and historian Diedre Cooper Owens published a book about Sims’ experiments. Medical Bondage covers more than just Sims’ dark history, though. It also gives voice to the African American and Irish female subjects under the medical gaze of Sims and other early 19th-century American male gynaecologists. Owens peers into the minds of these doctors and their subjects, examining the motivations behind the questionable experiments and the responses of the women subjected to them. It is a favorite of grad students Maya Koretzky and Ayah Nurridin, and it could become one of yours, too.

Interested in Progressive Era medicine and American middle-class women?

The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes

Nancy Tomes, a historian at Stony Brook University, New York, is one of the most cited authors in the history of American medicine for good reason. Grad student Alex Parry always keeps this tome at his side, saying it “examines how germ theory traveled from the laboratory into the public sphere (in early 20th-century America) and shows how science changes as it enters the mainstream media and the marketplace.” In this book, middle-class women “manage microbes” on furniture and children, teach classes that educate Americans about the dangers of germs and purchase new germ-killing technologies that promise household protection.

Interested in cancer and post-Colonial Africa?

Improvising Medicine by Julie Livingston

“Improvisation is a defining feature of biomedicine in Africa.” Part of Livingston’s general argument, this statement says so much about life in a medical clinic in post-Colonial Africa. Only one oncologist and a handful of nurses serve the oncology ward at Princess Marina Hospital in Botswana, and they lack most drugs and technologies present in Western hospitals, leading health care providers to improvise much of their work. Livingston’s medical anthropology and historical background shines through in her prose and analysis. She illuminates how improvisation is necessary in African oncology clinics, where pain and laughter meet, and kinship networks determine how and when a patient receives treatment. We view the ward through Livingston’s powerful personal experiences, following patients to their deaths or recoveries in an atmosphere simultaneously filled with fear and hope.

Interested in climate crises and essay collections?

The Fabric of Space by Mathew Gandy

Access to clean water is one of the most pressing issues of climate change, affecting all aspects of daily life, especially in urban areas. Gandy travels to six global cities to explore how clean water access affects nature as well as city infrastructure. He explores Parisian sewers, mosquitoes in Lagos, river flooding in London and more. Through these examples, Gandy argues that nature and urbanity are entangled in water — you cannot separate one from the other. This is the perfect book to pick up and put down, since each chapter is a separate essay. In the end, it asks a chilling question: Where do we go from here?

Other great history of medicine summer reads

  • Plague and suspense in 17th-century England: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (novel)
  • Chinese medicine, the Greeks and ancient understandings of the body: The Expressiveness of the Body by Shigehisa Kuriyama (nonfiction)
  • The West Indies, human experimentation and romantic entanglements: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (novel)
  • Victorian surgeries, English fossil hunting and tuberculosis: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Parry (novel)
  • Mad dogs, Englishmen (and women), and rabies: Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys (nonfiction)
  • Managing cholera in New York City throughout the 19th century: The Cholera Years by Charles Rosenberg (nonfiction)
  • Gynecology, Nigeria and a whole lot of dramatic irony: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (novel)

Thanks to the Johns Hopkins library system, you can borrow these books. Happy reading and have a great summer from all of us in the Department of the History of Medicine!


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