The Rise and Fall of the Age of Miracles

Roy Porter charts the whirlwind of medical triumphs that promised limitless progress in human health and our more sober reflections on the eve of the third millennium.

James Gillray, The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802)The propaganda for progress beamed out ever since the Enlightenment became reality during the nineteenth century, embodied in conspicuous improvements in science, technology and material civilisation. Born in Britain, the Industrial Revolution spread through north-west and central Europe and to North America, bringing rising wealth and population and the increase of man's power over Nature. But what was medicine's part in this? Up to 1870, no honest outsider would have been able to survey medical theory and practice and conclude that these domains displayed unambiguous progress, less still that they could form the very springboard for a philosophy of improvement.

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