Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century


Little more than one hundred years ago, maps of the world still boasted white space: places where no human had ever trod. Within a few short decades the most hostile of the world’s environments had all been conquered. Likewise, in the twentieth century, medicine transformed human life. Doctors took what was routinely fatal and made it survivable. As modernity brought us ever more into different kinds of extremis, doctors pushed the bounds of medical advances and human endurance. Extreme exploration challenged ...
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Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century

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Little more than one hundred years ago, maps of the world still boasted white space: places where no human had ever trod. Within a few short decades the most hostile of the world’s environments had all been conquered. Likewise, in the twentieth century, medicine transformed human life. Doctors took what was routinely fatal and made it survivable. As modernity brought us ever more into different kinds of extremis, doctors pushed the bounds of medical advances and human endurance. Extreme exploration challenged the body in ways that only the vanguard of science could answer. Doctors, scientists, and explorers all share a defining trait: they push on in the face of grim odds. Because of their extreme exploration we not only understand our physiology better; we have also made enormous strides in the science of healing.

Drawing on his own experience as an anesthesiologist, intensive care expert, and NASA adviser, Dr. Kevin Fong examines how cuttingedge medicine pushes the envelope of human survival by studying the human body’s response when tested by physical extremes. Extreme Medicine explores different limits of endurance and the lens each offers on one of the systems of the body. The challenges of Arctic exploration created opportunities for breakthroughs in open heart surgery; battlefield doctors pioneered techniques for skin grafts, heart surgery, and trauma care; underwater and outer space exploration have revolutionized our understanding of breathing, gravity, and much more. Avant-garde medicine is fundamentally changing our ideas about the nature of life and death.

Through astonishing accounts of extraordinary events and pioneering medicine, Fong illustrates the sheer audacity of medical practice at extreme limits, where human life is balanced on a knife’s edge. Extreme Medicine is a gripping debut about the science of healing, but also about exploration in its broadest sense—and about how, by probing the very limits of our biology, we may ultimately return with a better appreciation of how our bodies work, of what life is, and what it means to be human.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British doctor and space enthusiast Fong launches a gripping “exploration of the extreme tolerances of the human body” in this eloquent history of how 20th-century science and medicine moved us toward “improved survival”—and with it a better understanding of life and death. He begins with a tale of a young Norwegian woman’s incredible survival after deep hypothermia and moves on to describe the remarkable strides in burn care built on reconstructive surgery during WWII. Further along in his journey, Fong details the daring operations that opened “the continent of the heart,” and how the polio epidemic—which touched Fong’s own family—begat the fields of anesthesiology and intensive care. From the heart-pounding tale of how a fatal accident helped a grieving doctor develop life-saving trauma care to a moving depiction of the end of human life, these are thrilling stories that describe the limits of human physiology. But they have a more profound meaning as well, Fong finds. Whether it’s the 1912 South Pole expedition that claimed the life of Robert Falcon Scott or the obstacles that await our species as we prepare for outer space travel, Fong concludes, “We explore simply because we must.” (Feb.)
The Observer (UK)
Anatomy and physiology are elegantly explained, not as abstract theory, but as counterpoint to gripping stories about survival against the odds. Real stories of life and near-death form the compelling backbone of the book. The book could easily have ended up as a series of Boy's Own tales of derring-do, but Fong elegantly balances heroism with rationalism, courage with compassion, shock with humility and humor.
Guardian (UK)
From the outset Extreme Medicine is a gripping read. It's the kind of book you want to read peeking through cracks in your fingers; you want to look away, but not as much as you want to know what happens… I held my breath, I shed a tear, I laughed out loud, and I struggled to keep my lunch down at various points through this book, and that can only be a good thing.
Times Higher Education (UK)
Fong weaves together seemingly unconnected events in this world and beyond in a series of breathless vignettes… an appealing mix of academic eloquence and matey talk: … In many ways, Extreme Medicine is the story of the 20th century…We explore because we must, and if you have a sense of adventure and the miracle of life within you, then this book is for you.
Daily Mail
Fong has dramatic first-person accounts to give, and many more… he also proves himself to be a genuinely talented author… Fong has come up with an often fascinating and actually rather inspiring account of western medicine's ever-increasing expertise.
Wall Street Journal
In Extreme Medicine, physician Kevin Fong reminds us that virtually everything we take for granted in lifesaving medical intervention was once unthinkable? Dr. Fong's engaging and fast-paced narrative is liberally sprinkled with his own harrowing experiences as a specialist in anesthesia and intensive-care.
The Washington Post
Every chapter combines personal stories, dramatic medical history and clear, vivid science writing…Fong's book presents daring moments in medicine along with lucid explanations of human physiology and of how medical professionals manage to keep people alive or pull them back from the brink. It should appeal to would-be astronauts, outdoor-lovers, mountain climbers, free-divers, armchair explorers, science enthusiasts, those working in the health professions or wondering about such a career — indeed, just about anyone with a heartbeat and a dash of curiosity.
From the Publisher
"A medical thriller of the first order." —-Kirkus Starred Review
Library Journal
A woman dies of hypothermia and is revived two hours later. A doctor and his family are in plane crash and a simple, life-saving mnemonic is developed. Fong, a doctor and codirector of the Aviation Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London, links the history of medicine to extremes. The author draws from history and his own experience to craft an engaging narrative of early burn wards, the destructive and curative promise of hypothermia, crushing pressures of diving, high-altitude sickness, expected health issues of missions to Mars, and the future of elder care. This inspiring read shows how far medicine has advanced the use of ambulances and helicopters, intensive care units, and the other technologies that vastly improve the likelihood of surviving trauma and diseases that otherwise would be fatal. The narrative feels disjointed at times as the author jumps from one story to another but ties together nicely at the conclusion of each chapter. VERDICT Fans of history, medicine, space exploration, and sf will find this book difficult to put down.—Susanne Caro, Univ. of Montana Lib., Missoula
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-04
The founder of the Centre for Altitude, Space, and Extreme Environment Medicine examines the connections between extraordinary advances in modern medicine and the experiences of explorers, mountaineers, soldiers and others who face extreme conditions. An intensive-care physician who also studied astrophysics and engineering, Guardian contributor Fong shares a unique point of view on the development of intensive care as a medical discipline. "Much of the [modern] advance [in saving life]…has come through wrapping fragile human physiology in concentric layers of artificial life support and allowing it to be projected into extremes that we were never before able to survive," writes the author, who provides many fascinating examples--e.g., in 1999, the miraculous recovery of a Norwegian doctor who almost died after a skiing accident. When rescued after being submerged in icy water for more than 40 minutes after a fall, she was not breathing and had no discernible pulse. Her medical colleagues used heroic methods to save her, calling upon the skills of a surgical anesthesiologist and applying techniques pioneered in open-heart surgery. This prompted the recognition that deliberately inducing "hypothermic arrest" and bringing a patient to the point of death extended the time available for complex, life-threatening surgical operations. Similarly, the treatment of wartime casualties during World War II led to major advances in the treatment of severe burns--and the first successful face transplant in 2009. The key was to artificially maintain blood circulation in skin grafts to the affected areas. Fong believes that the demands of manned space flights to Mars will drive new frontiers of medicine. Today, we are only beginning to deal with medical problems (e.g., loss of calcium in bones, inner-ear problems with balance) faced by astronauts who spend time in zero-gravity environments and then return to Earth. A medical thriller of the first order.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781452648149
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/6/2014
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Library - Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cowley is a British actor whose recording of The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart earned him an AudioFile Earphones Award. He has narrated many audiobooks as well as film trailers and documentaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

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