Reading List / On the Record: March-April 2004

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March 31, 2004

 

Reading List

We asked medical school professors to recommend good books in their specialties suitable for general readers.

Jo Rae Wright, professor of cell biology and the med school's vice dean of basic sciences, recommends J. Michael Bishop's How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science. In his personal reflection on winning the prize and being a scientist, Wright says, Bishop "states that he wrote the book to show that scientists are 'supremely human.' In addition to providing a glimpse into the life of a stellar researcher, the book also presents an interesting story about hunting down pathogens such as cholera, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria,[and]smallpox."

Speaking of smallpox, Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn is a favorite of Samuel L. Katz, W.C. Davison professor emeritus of pediatrics. Katz finds Fenn's history of the smallpox epidemic that hit the American colonies during the years of the Revolutionary War eminently readable. "At a time when, after 9/11, our nation was alerted to concerns regarding smallpox as a weapon of bio-terrorism, her descriptions of the ravages of the infection among troops, civilians, slaves, Native Americans, and Mexicans throughout the North American continent are gripping indeed. For a disease which still defies therapy, this is a poignant account."

Strong Medicine by George C. Halvorson is "an excellent book" on the costs of health care in America, says Haywood L. Brown, a physician and professor who chairs the department of obstetrics and gynecology. "The book examines various aspects of the health system's failures and deficiencies, explores the waste, complexities, and redundancies in the system, and, finally, offers solutions that would assist in helping to correct our current health-care ills," Brown says. "Although this book was published a decade ago, I find myself coming back to it time and time again."

Medical school dean R. Sanders "Sandy" Williams M.D. '74 remembers the works of one of his heroes, Lewis Thomas, whom he calls "a brilliant investigator and physician and a deeply principled humanist and man of letters." While Williams loves Thomas' old column from The New England Journal of Medicine, "Notes of a Biology Watcher," he recommends Thomas' The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher. "The book was published in 1983 but remains current," says Williams. "It combines personal stories of his own career with important messages about medicine and doctoring."

On the Record

You've said the movie Cold Mountain misrepresents the racial realities of the Civil War South. How so?

It happens on two levels. First, there's the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in the opening scene of the movie (which, incidentally, wasn't in the book). After the Pennsylvania coal miners blew up the Confederate lines, the Union Army sent in white troops, who weren't as well-prepared as the Union's black division. They hadn't trained for the operation, they were far less zealous about fighting the Confederates, and they were so stupid they rushed right into the crater. That gave the Confederates time to regroup, and, once they did, they made a counter-charge.

When the Union Army saw what was coming, they got cold feet, withdrew the white troops, and sent in the black unit. And so it was the blacks who took the brunt of the charge. Many were killed right there in the crater. And they were crucial to the battle.

So they missed that. And, then, on an individual level, they don't know how to deal with Ruby's character. As Charles Frazier describes her, she's "a dark thing, hair black and coarse as a horse's tail, broad across the bridge of her nose." In other words, she's not RenÈe Zellweger. Frazier doesn't say "Negro" and he doesn't say "Indian," so, to me, that's an implication that she's tri-racial. But this is typical of Hollywood. Not only do they have trouble dealing with slavery, but they also have trouble with people of mixed race.

The reality in the South during the war is so complicated and fascinating. Every county and every region is different. Each has a different relationship with slavery, with the Confederate government, with the Union. So far, the filmmakers haven't bothered to get it right. And that presents a serious dilemma. Look what Gone with the Wind did to a whole generation. They went away saying, "Oh, I guess that's the Civil War." We've gotten to a point where we let Hollywood write our history. And we do it at great peril.