Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Book Review

Medicine in the Beehive State 1940-1990, ed. Henry P. Plenk. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Medical Association, LDS Hospital-Deseret Foundation, University of Utah Health Sciences Center, 1992, 586 pp., $35.00 (cloth).

 

Reviewed by Cristine W. Blanch, Administrator, Davis County School District, Utah

In 1987, backed with funding from CIBA Geigy Pharmaceutical, the LDSDeseret Foundation, and the Utah Medical Association, Dr. Henry P. Plenk chaired a committee whose task it was to gather material for and publish the history of medicine in Utah. Medicine in the Beehive State: 1940-1990 is the result of that effort. In his introduction, Plenk explains the difficulty of obtaining and editing the many manuscripts that made up this volume: "In general, the oldest available member of a department or in practice was sought out. If he was unable or unwilling to write, others were approached. A balance between faculty members and practicing physicians was attempted." Despite its seemingly limited appeal-mainly for physicians trained at the University of Utah and/or practicing in Utah and its arbitrary division into six unappealingly titled sections (Early History of the FourYear Medical School at the University of Utah, Practice of Medicine and Medical Subspecialties, Surgery and Surgical Specialties, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pediatrics, and Independent Departments)-Medicine is an important work. For those who are interested in, or consider themselves part of, the experience of the American West, this volume chronicles another type of pioneer, another frontier, and another farfetched success story.

Which is not to say this is a well-written history. For the most part, the book reads like a combination of Who's Who in America and the encyclopedia, as its contributing authors plow dutifully through the list of their colleagues' names, famous alma maters, and accomplishments. Probably the authors were all given the same tedious mandate: Write a complete history of your field; mention as many people as possible; make sure we know they came from someplace important; and tell what wonderful physicians they were / are. It is ironic that individuals expert in that most vitally human art-medicine-seem to have been forced by the structure and approach of this volume to squeeze all humanity out of their writing and to stump heavily through a thicket of detail better left to footnotes.

Not all Medicine, however, makes dull reading. Plenk's "Early History of the Four-Year Medical School at the University of Utah, 1942-1952" is, despite its title and its author's utilitarian use of language, a remarkable account of the evolution of the medical school from a two-year to a four-year institution, due in part to a need for more doctors during World War Il.

In addition to Plenk's account and interspersed amid the catalogue of names and dates, the book offers some interesting anecdotes about early medical practice in the state and insights into the pioneering role Utah physicians played in curing diseases of the blood, refining cardiological procedures, contributing to polio research, and so on. Dr. Lorimer T. Christensen's chapter, "Allergy," for example, explores in lay terms the tremendous advances in his field, in which as recently as the turn of the century "asthma sufferers smoked stramonium leaves in a water pipe" as a form of therapy.

It is Dr. J. Eldon Dorman's "Recollections of a Coal Camp Doctor," however, that makes us realize what has been lacking in other chapters. From his arrival riding "in the back of a flatbed coal truck, clutching [his] medical bag" to his closing tribute to the Greek, Austrian, Italian, Welsh, and Japanese patients who had been part of his practice in Carbon County, Dorman describes a world in which primitive conditions called for inventiveness and character. He focuses on people the miners who often literally worked themselves into their graves: Osby Martin who had "killed a man and served time in the Colorado penitentiary;" Father Ruel who deputized Dorman to baptize a baby in his absence; and Dr. McDermid who won the respect of the miners of Castle Gate. Recalling McDermid's stand against a manager who had threatened to turn off the electricity in the miners' company houses, Dorman notes:

I did not have the physique or the ability to be as aggressive as Dr. McDermid, but this story illustrates how many of the early doctors were willing to jeopardize their jobs with the companies that hired them in defense of the coal miners and their families.

Despite its limitations, Medicine in the Beehive State does assemble a wealth of information for those who want a quick reference book noting the "big" names in Utah's medical history and listing technical accomplishments in various medical fields. Furthermore, readers may begin to see, as names and details merge and one medical breakthrough follows another, that impressive things can happen in unlikely places and that the medical pioneers who came to Utah from the great universities of the East laid the foundation for the highly respected medical establishment we know today. When it comes to the state of medicine in the State of Utah, in the words of the old Utah pioneer song-all is well.