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
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
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
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
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