‘Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures’ by Chris and Xand van Tulleken (LB Kids, 2014)
Have you ever wondered why trepanning was used to treat headaches? Why the Ancient Egyptians mashed tortoise brains with honey to treat eye troubles? Or why ‘gong farming’ was such an unpleasant occupation? Then pick up a copy of Operation Ouch!, read it, and pass it on to the nearest ten-year-old.
Through a combination of medical and historical facts, illustrations, quizzes, humour, and easily accessible dialogue, Chris and Xand van Tulleken (both of whom are qualified medical practitioners) have presented children with some of the most gruesome, unpleasant, and bizarre aspects of past medical practice. Their most recent book explains the history of medicine in fun and accessible ways. Based on their award-winning television show by the same name, Operation Ouch! sets out to teach younger readers about the body, how it works, what can often go wrong with the body, and how we have attempted to care for our bodies over the past three thousand years.
Apart from a series of strange diseases and gruesome medical practices, the van Tullekens also include short ‘heroes of medicine’ biographies that introduce young readers to notable figures such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, Alexander Fleming, and Ignaz Semmelweis. Their approach is thematic, devoting each chapter to a different structure within the body. They start with the brain, eyes, nose and mouth, and move on through the body to end with the stomach, bladder, bottom and a handy concluding chapter on first aid.
The book’s thematic structure means that there is often little sense of chronological development across time and between cultures. This is not unsurprising since neither author is a trained historian. Chris van Tulleken is a MRC Research Fellow at UCL specialising in infectious diseases and Xand van Tulleken works in humanitarian aid. Their medical background has certainly influenced the structure and focus of Operation Ouch!.
By structuring their book according to body parts (rather than significant historical time periods) they achieve less sense of the slow build-up of knowledge and clinical practices. Although the authors talk about the achievements of notable medical elites or ‘heroes of medicine’, there is little sense that these heroes were working within wider medical communities or were heavily influenced by culturally resonant sets of values. Historians of medicine may find it disconcerting that Chirs and Xand van Tulleken move so quickly through an on-going series of historical vignettes. They shift from Jenner’s smallpox vaccine to the implementation of contemporary vaccination programmes without a solitary reference to controversial vaccination acts or misdirected clinical experiments.
Nevertheless, Operation Ouch! shows younger readers how people thought about medicine and illness in the past. It demonstrates that perceived causes of disease have changed over time. It explains why treatments (such as tortoise brains) were thought to be efficacious, and why natural products (such as honey) are still recognised for their therapeutic properties. The authors use examples such as leeching to demonstrate interesting continuities and revivals in medical practice. They explain to younger readers that leeching was a common treatment for many centuries, that it then fell out of medical use towards the end of the nineteenth century, and that it is now making a medical comeback. On the other hand, by showing young readers why the Ancient Egyptians believed toothache to be caused by small burrowing worms (and alleviated by flushing out those worms with hot water or beeswax), Operation Ouch! also demonstrates important shifts in medical thought. It demonstrates to young readers that the practice of medicine was never static.
By focusing upon body parts, rather than time periods, Operation Ouch! makes the history of medicine more immediate for younger readers. Reading about how different cultures treated earache or toothache across time allows younger readers to better situate themselves within the historical narrative and to think about how they themselves are treated for such conditions today. Importantly, the authors use past medical practices to introduce children to illnesses (such as cataracts and tonsillitis) that are still a cause of morbidity today. In this respect, their book not only fascinates children with tales of the gory and macabre. It also makes contemporary illnesses understandable and non-threatening.
In the absence of acknowledgements and references it is difficult to determine whether Ancient Egyptian scrolls dating from 1500 BC did indeed recommend eating the fats of lions, hippopotami, crocodiles and snakes as a treatment for wounds. Yet the value of Operation Ouch! is not simply in the historicity of its content but in the way that content is presented to young readers. Indeed, it is through embellishment and creative prose that Chris and Xand van Tulleken successfully engage children with the history of medicine.
In the style of the best Horrible Histories Chris and Xand van Tulleken have rendered these episodes accessible to younger readers to whom the history of medicine is often not otherwise taught. With the exception of the optional GCSE elective, ‘Medicine Through Time’, very little attention is given to the teaching of medical history, and even then this teaching is designed for fourteen- to sixteen-year-old students in Key Stage 4. It is likely that, in many cases, books such as Operation Ouch! will be the first point of contact that children have with medical history.
It may be surprising to hear that, despite Operation Ouch! being such an easily readable and enjoyable book, I found it exceptionally difficult to review. I had to repeatedly and self-consciously take off my historian’s cap. I had to constantly remind myself that I was reading a children’s book, and not another of the serious scholarly tomes that I have become accustomed to reading and reviewing. It is precisely this problem of genre that interested me. Operation Ouch! is fun, entertaining, and easily accessible. Yet I struggled to relate to its aims and messages. Such struggle is, I think, reflective of wider problems in the scholarly practice of history – namely, how historians can make history pertinent to children. I struggled to review Operation Ouch! because I – and many historians like me – struggle to translate our own research into an accessible format for children. Operation Ouch! is not only an engaging book for youngsters. Reading it as a medical historian has also given me a new appreciation for how historians can (and should) engage children and make the study of history more interesting.
There is much in Operation Ouch! to keep younger blood-thirsty readers entertained for hours. Yet there is also much that this book can teach those working in the medical humanities. For researchers, the importance of this book lies in its ability to engage children with the history of medicine. It is a form of engagement about which we all need to think more carefully and take a more active role. This book shows researchers how to start conversations with children and how to introduce them to the history of medicine in ways that are both engaging and informative.
Reviewed by Dr Anne Hanley. Her research interests include venereal diseases, knowledge production, bacteriology, medical education and practice, technology and material culture in medicine, midwifery training and practice, infertility, Poor Law provisions, health insurance, and public health policy. She is currently mapping the provisions for venereological training and practice across England in the decades preceding and immediately following the formation of the NHS. Her blog and more about her research can be found here.