Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World

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Modern culture tends to separate medicine and miracles, but their histories are closely intertwined. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes saints through canonization based on evidence that they worked miracles, as signs of their proximity to God. Physicianhistorian Jacalyn Duffin has examined Vatican sources on 1400 miracles from six continents and spanning four centuries. Overwhelmingly the miracles cited in canonizations between 1588 and 1999 are healings, and the majority entail medical care and physician testimony.

These remarkable records contain intimate stories of illness, prayer, and treatment, as told by people who rarely leave traces: peasants and illiterates, men and women, old and young. A woman's breast tumor melts away; a man's wounds knit; a lame girl suddenly walks; a dead baby revives. Suspicious of wishful thinking or naïve enthusiasm, skeptical clergy shaped the inquiries to identify recoveries that remain unexplained by the best doctors of the era. The tales of healing are supplemented with substantial testimony from these physicians.

Some elements of the miracles change through time. Duffin shows that doctors increase in number; new technologies are embraced quickly; diagnoses shift with altered capabilities. But other aspects of the miracles are stable. The narratives follow a dramatic structure, shaped by the formal questions asked of each witness and by perennial reactions to illness and healing. In this history, medicine and religion emerge as parallel endeavors aimed at deriving meaningful signs from particular instances of human distress — signs to explain, alleviate, and console in confrontation with suffering and mortality.

A lively, sweeping analysis of a fascinating set of records, this book also poses an exciting methodological challenge to historians: miracle stories are a vital source not only on the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, but also on medical science and its practitioners.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For individual sufferers, healing and survival can be both spiritual and physical experiences. Dr. Duffin — medical practitioner and historian — boldly delves into a seldom-analyzed relationship between religion and medicine. Medically attested miracles are an unusual topic for research, often featured to praise or ridicule phenomena lacking scientific explanation. The author's meticulous and balanced analysis of past investigations into the miraculous coupled with her keen clinical eye will be widely read and discussed by skeptics and believers alike." —Guenter B. Risse, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Francisco

"This book is an important new study of the relationship between religion and medicine. Penned by a well-established medical scientist and modern historian, it places this relationship at the forefront of research on opens up a realm of opportunities to historians, for whom it will no doubt become a seminal work. Medievalists, too, will now have to reconsider their own work in the light of Duffin's findings."—New England Journal of Medicine

"A thoroughly engaging, daring exploration of depositions from canonization proceedings in the Vatican Archives that reveals the centrality of medical judgment and physicians' testimony in the adjudication of miracles during the past four hundred years. Rich in stories about the place and meanings of miracles in everyday life, in Duffin's hands these records offer astonishingly fresh insight into the interplay between religion and medicine and into the wider cultural power of medicine in the modern world." —John Harley Warner, Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine, Yale University

"Drawing upon Vatican canonization records, Jacalyn Duffin's study of healing miracles examines the sometimes competitive, sometimes complementary relationships between pre-modern and modern medicine and the cult of the saints. Her thorough reading of some 1,400 miracle accounts unearths patterns of spiritual healing that have been a vital part of Europeans' lives and her keen eye for detail provides welcome insights into the long-neglected story of faith and its healing potential." —Philip Soergel, Department of History, University of Maryland

"Duffin's account of the medical history of the canonization process is in many respects revelatory....Duffin's interrogation of the records is thoughtful and multilayered; the reflections in her concluding section are of special interest, because they relate to the relationship between religion, medicine, and the miracles of healing."—JAMA

"Written by a medical historian, this research is of great interest."—Pediatric Endocrinology Reviews

"This is pioneering research with great theoretical and practical interest; it should engage anyone curous about the unknown limits of human capacity."—Journal of Scientific Exploration

Abigail Zuger
Even rationalists must acknowledge that this series of the not-so-incurably ill forms a fascinating and neglected part of medical history, a rare report from the cloudy borders of the improbable and unforeseen.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195336504
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 11/21/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,382,185
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jacalyn Duffin, physician and historian, holds the Hannah Chair for the History of Medicine, Queen's University, Ontario.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 Making Saints: Miracles, Medicine, and Evidence since 1588 11

2 The Supplicants and Their Saints 37

3 The Miracles: Diseases, Corpses, and Other Wonders 71

4 The Doctors: Medical Knowledge in the Canonization Process 113

5 The Cure as Drama: Gestures of Invocation and the Context of Healing 145

Conclusion: Religion, Medicine, and Miracles 183

Appendix A Note on Sources and Method 191

Appendix B Saints, Blesseds, Venerables, and the Sources on Their Miracles 197

Appendix C Canonizations and Beatifications Used in This Study by Year of Celebration 215

Notes 225

Bibliography 257

Index 275

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