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No. 806:
The Youngest Science

Today, an art changes into the youngest science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lewis Thomas went to medical school in 1933. His father had been a doctor -- his mother, a nurse. Midnight house calls were the norm. As town GP, his father talked to people. He explained more illnesses than he cured -- illnesses like heart failure, tuberculosis, and tertiary syphilis.

You could ease a failing heart with digitalis, if you were careful. You might try collapsing a tubercular lung. You could only stand watch over advanced syphilis. You couldn't cure any of those diseases. Doctors spent much of their lives standing watch and explaining to people how they were condemned to die.

That's the life Thomas chose to follow. He studied the late-19th-century medicine of Osler. He learned to comfort the incurable. But all that was about to be swept away in a new whirlwind.

One storm warning for Thomas was a doctor named George Minot in the hospital where he interned. In 1921 Minot had developed severe diabetes -- one more hopeless disease. That was the same year two young doctors in Canada isolated insulin. They won a Nobel prize, and Minot's life was one of the first they saved.

Four years later, Minot also did something to win a Nobel Prize. He found that another incurable ill, pernicious anemia, could be cured after all, with liver extract. Liver, we later learned, supplied a nutrient called vitamin B-12.

So, while Thomas interned, we learned to cure incurable diseases. And those new hi-tech miracles soon lived a life of their own. Tuberculosis yielded too easily to antibiotics. We didn't notice until too late that we'd bred virulent new strains of TB.

We've almost wiped out syphilis, but how? By blindly overdosing flu victims with penicillin! Surgery offers a vast, if detached, arsenal against heart failure. Thomas began tracing his father's footsteps, then found himself on another road entirely.

So he titles his autobiographical account of modern medicine, The Youngest Science. For medicine did turn into modern technology and science while he was in medical school. Still, he remembers how his father touched patients and talked to them.

The sick need that as badly as medicine. They need to be touched. They need people who can tell them what they're afraid to hear. We've lost more than house calls, Thomas says. The miraculous new machinery of healing has truly given hope where there once was no hope. But the healers have also let high technology become a barricade against the sick.

For two generations, physicians forgot how to be with their patients. The break has been too long -- too complete -- Thomas thinks. Now medicine is busy relearning his father's forgotten skills, but from the beginning -- a little like children first learning to speak.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Thomas, L., The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher, New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

The statement about the two doctors in Canada winning the Nobel prize is not strictly correct. The two who began the work on insulin were Fred Banting and Charles Best. They did so under the support of Professor McLeod at the University of Toronto Medical School. In the late stages of the work, McLeod sent James Collip to help them. The Nobel Prize for insulin went to Banting and McLeod. Banting shared his half with Best. McLeod shared his half with Collip.

I am grateful to Dr. Ken McClain for technical advice and general counsel.