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Microbes, Bugs and Wonder Drugs. Fran Balkwell and Mic Rolph. Portland Press. 128 pp. ISBN 1-85578-065-8 (cloth).
This lavishly illustrated book gives a fascinating overview of the world of diseases and the drugs designed to combat them, their use, abuse, and how they work. Having first described the general action of drugs in microbiological terms, the authors devote chapters to bacteria and viruses, cancer, allergies, pain relief, and intoxicants and addic-tion, with a brief summary conclusion. In each case the operation of the disease and the drugs used to treat them is described and the rules of good practice emphasized (e.g., why you should not take antibiotics unnecessarily, and why you should finish the course of treatment when you do). The place of drugs in our late twentieth centruy culture is well contextualized, by the comparison with the past, by tracing the historical development of at least one drug in each section, and by highlighting what the authors see as potential problems in the future.
The text is generally sequential, making it an easy book to read from cover to cover, but difficult to dip into. However, a good combined glossary and index helps with finding information on a particular topic. The style is lively, even irritatingly sensational at times, and the authors just manage to avoid degenerating into a directory of illnesses and corresponding drugs. The illustrations, many of which verge on pure art, are used to heighten the dramatic impact of the text, rather than as explanatory diagrams. They succeed in making the book attractive and exciting to look at.
The historical developments are in isolated sections, in almost comic strip style. To the historian these are simplistic and whiggish in the extreme, and I would not recommend this book as a source, for instance, for the history of medicine. But they do form a very good example of the way history of science can be integrated and used effectively to provide a context for the present day and its problems.
The book is written for 12-16 year olds and many of the messages are aimed specifically at this age group. Indeed this, or a book like it, should be compulsory reading for all teenagers. However, most adults would also learn a lot from reading it--I certainly did.
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