The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine

. September 2012. 320p. 978-0-30016-991-1. 35.
Is the goal of improving human health through genetic manipulation any different from the goals of the eugenicists of the 1920s? Comfort (history of medicine, Johns Hopkins Univ.; The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control) notes the exceedingly fine line between eugenics and modern genetic medicine used for human improvement. Many who speculate on the future of medicine predict the personalization of medical treatments through genetic manipulation. Comfort traces the history of medical genetics from Charles Darwin’s lesser-known cousin Francis Galton to Watson and Crick’s double helix. He tells the story of Archibald Garrod, a British chemical pathologist who fell into genetics work when he collected information on a group of people with alkaptonuria, a rare disorder also known as black urine disease. Garrod went on to correspond with William Bateson, who had translated into English some of Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity, and to write a pioneering paper on genetic disease in 1902.
VERDICT Comfort has sketched an interesting history of scientists not widely known outside of their field. Its academic tone recommends this book to scholarly or professional readers and those with a particular interest in medical history.
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