My Favorite Medical History Podcasts

In addition to an extensive list of memoirs, biographies, and research texts on medical history that I have read for background research on Sugar Communion, I have also spent a lot of time walking the dog and listening to podcasts. Here’s a photo of Wile E. and me, just because:

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Heading out to the trail and hoping we’re the only ones on it. Listening to medical podcasts during COVID is on-point.

My heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, M.D., is one of many young women who became physicians or surgeons at the turn of the twentieth century. In romance novels, the introduction of a female doctor character is often presented as something truly exceptional: “the only female physician in England,” one says! While it is true that the best female physicians of the United Kingdom were in Scotland, not England, this kind of blurb is bad history. (Is it good marketing? I don’t know.)

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Check out my Pinterest pages for all my inspirations and visual research. Liddy will grow up in a medical family: her father and two brothers are both physicians of the eclectic school and operate a hydrotherapy sanitarium (think Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium for more frugal customers). She will go against her family’s wishes—not in becoming a doctor but in studying the new microbiological, laboratory-based field, which they regarded as a threat.

It was not an easy career to choose for a woman, to be sure, but doors were not as closed to them as people today tend to think. Modern medicine and medical education was born at the turn of the twentieth century, meaning that doctors went from being considered “butchers” and “charlatans” (though, let’s face it, they were bleeders) to people who could actually diagnose what was wrong with you and, eventually, help you. (Though before antibiotics, odds on recovery were still not great, unfortunately.) It is this improvement in status of doctors that led conservative elements of American society to decide that medicine was not an appropriate career for women, often because a woman doctor would be “taking the good job of a man.” The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 is credited with creating the modern scientific medical school system in the US, but it also directly or indirectly caused the closure of many medical schools for women (and African Americans). Those that had been coeducational reduced their admission of women, partly because they had a rise in male applicants. One study calls an unintended consequence of Flexner’s report the “the near elimination of women in the physician workforce between 1910 and 1970.”

(Side note: Johns Hopkins, the model of a modern medical school for Mr. Flexner, only managed to operate because of the patronage of four women: Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, and Mary Gwinn. According to Johns Hopkins: “They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Reluctantly, the men agreed.” Unfortunately, the legendary founder of internal medicine at Hopkins, Dr. William Osler, was less enthusiastic about the role of women in the field, and the numbers of female students would dwindle before growing again decades later.)

Women in medicine is really the subject for another post, which I plan to do. But importantly I write historical fiction and romance, so my character Liddy needs to be a good doctor appropriate to her time period. I had to understand the world of medicine she was a part of. Better than studying it, I had to immerse myself in it. For that task, I did use some good books, but mostly I listened to podcasts. Let’s talk about a few of those:

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Bedside Rounds

My favorite serious medical history podcast was Bedside Rounds, hosted by Adam Rodman, M.D. Every one of these episodes are very engaging and informative. How accurate are they? Well, members of the American College of Physicians can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credit for just listening to these episodes and taking a quick quiz! But, trust me, we general listeners need not worry about the test. You’re definitely not going to get bored, either. Dr. Rodman’s intention was to model his podcast on Radio Lab, and he succeeded. His delivery of information is that compelling and digestible (health-related pun?). There were times when I did backtrack 15 seconds or so just to let some point wash over me a second time, but keep in mind that I was taking mental notes for my book. A casual listener can easily stay on pace. Dr. Rodman explains all his medical terms for us laymen, but at the same time he doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. His presentations are well-scripted and do have lighter moments but never get silly. The Radio Lab comparison is dead on. I have listened to all 57 episodes (well, okay, 56 really because he revised and re-released one, and I only bothered with the newer version), and I will say that the whole series is fascinating. This library of information changes the way you view medicine. Frankly, it makes you realize how young the field really is. (Note: The COVID-related episodes, including an in-depth treatment of previous coronaviruses and the 1918 flu, are very good.)

This podcast will kill you

This Podcast Will Kill You is a close runner-up. Two immediate advantages of this podcast are (1) the female presenter duo, Erin Welsh, Ph.D. (ecology) and Erin Allmann Updyk, Ph.D. (epidemiology), and (2) their structure of dividing each episode into biology, history, and modern issues. They also have a Quarantini (or non-alcoholic Placeborita) drink recipe for each episode—and this was before we were all quarantining. “The Erins” (their label not mine) deal with some diseases that other podcasts do not cover, for example rinderpest, which will have to be another glossary post on this blog because it comes up a few times in my books. (It’s the bovine form of measles, to be overly reductive.) I think the only thing that gave Bedside Rounds the edge for me—and this is a personal preference—is that I don’t like much conversation in my podcasts. Or, at least, I think natural-sounding conversation is hard to pull off. It tends to sound really stilted to me, and I think some of the pauses the Erins put in for effect make me a little uncomfortable. This is definitely an its-not-you-its-me issue, and honestly I am probably being too sensitive. (Note: I have not gotten to the COVID episodes yet, but the Erins have several, all broken down by different facets of the pandemic.)

the history of medicine

I have only listened to the first half of the first season of The History of Medicine podcast, but what I like about it is the deep dive into a narrative history of one big medical invention at a time. The first season is all about antibiotics, and there is no show that develops the history of penicillin‘s discovery better, in my opinion. Also the show on plague (Yersinia pestis) is excellent background for all history teachers. A final advantage is that each episode here is very short. A disadvantage is that host and producer Kirby Gong is not a practicing physician. He only (ha!) has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—though I might call his viewpoint an advantage because he investigates medical inventions in a more procedural way. This is the lens of an engineer, and I find that very interesting.

this won’t hurt a bit

This Won’t Hurt a Bit is my new obsession, but I am bound to be disappointed soon because I am running out of episodes. The two ER physicians who are the main hosts here, Dr. Mel Herbert and Dr. Jess Mason, are so busy with saving lives and producing other educational modules for ER docs that they are not actively creating many new releases. (Note: They do have a few COVID episodes that I have not gotten to yet.) Every episode they have made is terrific. Though they are not exclusively focused on history, each podcast touches upon the historical approach to a disease or treatment in some way. They also teach you a lot about being a good patient, including when you might want to go to a hospital yourself! Dave Mason, Jess’s non-MD husband, is also one of the hosts, and he provides banter and asks the questions you really wanted to know. What I appreciate about Dave, though, is that he is not entirely silly, and he does not derail Mel and Jess when they are delivering information. This podcast is very well produced and engineered, with additional asides and definitions that you appreciate not dread. I am going to be really sorry when I run out of these.

sawbones

Sawbones is probably the most popular podcast of all the above, at least by the size of the live audiences that they have performed in front of (pre-quarantine days). This podcast is billed as a “A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” and that is because the show is based around the relationship of the medical host, Dr. Sydnee McElroy, and the comic relief, her husband Justin McElroy. I get why this formula works, and most people really love their rapport. Unfortunately, I get frustrated when Justin interrupts Sydnee for a sophomoric joke. Again, this may be my issue not yours. Most of the background medical history research is done by Sydnee—maybe I’m underestimating Justin?—and she always brings her A-game. She’s also living and practicing in Huntington, W.V., which is where my grandparents and aunt lived (and therefore I spent a lot of time growing up), and I feel connected to the McElroys that way too. They have several COVID episodes that I have not listened to yet, and they have also done an important set of podcasts on the history of medical racism inspired by recent protests.

stuff you missed in history class

For a history podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class touches on medical topics a lot. There is even a good episode on the Flexner report, mentioned above. I think this is because the hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, show a real concern for the daily lives of past people. One of their other stand-out episodes for me was on the “Orphan Trains,” which is a footnote of history you will also see in Sugar Communion. There is a deep backlog here that I plan to dive into once I’m finished with some of my medical questions.

the others

There are more podcasts that I have not yet gotten around to, like the Curious Clinicians, the History Chicks, the Revisionist History podcast, Blowback, and This Land. (Some of these titles are related to other interests, obviously.) There are other podcasts in my favorites that I listen only to a few episodes of, like Casenotes. (Nope, not the true crime podcast, but the medical history one. It is a fortnightly podcast from the Physicians’ Gallery at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Essentially it is just the audio of lectures given by doctors and epidemiologists for other highly-degreed people. It can be very good, depending on the speaker, but it is like listening to a conference, not a highly-produced podcast.) You may have also noticed Book Thingo on my Stitcher account because it’s the best romance podcast out there, and I’m not just saying that because they were willing to talk to me. Kat Mayo is also the originator of the #UndressAndres hashtag, so I owe her a lot.

If you know of more stuff I should be listening to—especially anything relevant to Sugar Communion—please let me know. My dog always needs walking.

Summer is Coming 2020

I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like summer is coming, not when you consider what my yard looked like on May 9th:

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But as I type this post from my lawn chair while my dog stalks our baby chicks on their “field trip” outside, I can vouch that summer is almost here. (She’s supposed to be one-eighth livestock guardian dog, and she guards them…one-eighth of the time.)

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If you read about the birth of our chicks in my last post, allow me to update you. We hatched eleven of them—and named the eleventh #SpinalTap in tribute. That is her below. (No, I don’t really know her sex, but I hope she grows into a productive egg-layer!)

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How else have I been keeping busy? Just like during sabbatical, I have been cooking a lot. We continue to order from Blue Apron, which is delicious, but now we are also getting a meal kit from Purple Carrot. This is a vegan-based food company that was originally associated with Mark Bittman (and I believe he still partly owns).

purple-carrot-meal-kitNormally, I would be eating from my employer’s dining hall for free during the boarding school year. While I am staying in New Hampshire, though, we are about a thirty-minute drive from a dedicated grocery store. Moreover, even if Market Basket were closer, purchasing ingredients for good dinners is not cheap, even with the values at such an amazing store. (Click the link to understand why this store has developed such a loyal following.)

I also love “cooking by the numbers,” as I call it. We are not going out to eat, not going to the movies, not going out for a drink, and not traveling. This is how I am treating myself. And, best of all, I am learning something. During sabbatical three years aago, I learned how to cook from scratch using Blue Apron, and their meals are restaurant-quality food. Purple Carrot is now teaching me to incorporate more vegetables in my repertoire—and, big plus, shipping those vegetables to me. (Thank you, delivery drivers!)

My first turkey dinner from scratch (in 2018): roast turkey breast on mashed potatoes with sautéed Brussels sprouts and real cranberry sauce, à la Blue Apron.)

Purple Carrot exposes its customers to good vegan substitutes for meat, like seitan. (Beware if you have a gluten allergy, though.) It also teaches me more ways to cook tofu and tempeh. I am not vegan, but I love it all. Best of all, the Purple Carrot menus are very international, including lots of Japanese, Thai, South Asian, Mediterranean, and Mexican dishes (or inspired/fusion). The spices and ingredients are excellent. Blue Apron has a cosmopolitan offering as well. For example, in both kits I’ve recently cooked food with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice that I’ve loved since living in Lebanon twenty years ago.

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If you cannot go to the store for your greens, why not cook the ones you have? I have enjoyed my limited foraging career. We have plans to get some mushrooms started on an old log in the shade, but right now I am teaching the dandelions who’s boss. They are a bit bitter, but if you blanch them before you sauté them, that helps. Also, serving them with cheese or pine nuts or figs makes them quite yummy. Above is my before-and-after photo…and if you’re wondering about the bread, that’s all Mr. Hallock’s doing:

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I am about to finish my term of online teaching—and, no,  the experience is not the same as in-person instruction, but it has been better than nothing. Most importantly, though, I feel lucky to still have my job. If I have teach online or adapt yet again to a hybrid classroom, I will figure it out. While there are so many people out there suffering and/or risking their lives (shout out to my cousin who is pulmonary specialist on the ICU frontlines), the least I can do is make the best of what I have. Make lemons into lemonade. Or, better for me, make a shandy out of Natty Lite and grapefruit flavoring.

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Or, as Wile E. Dog would tell you: make an old dirty leather glove into the world’s best toy. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

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Pizza, puppy, parol, and phunk

Mr. Hallock and I have a tradition we created our first year of marriage: pizza for Christmas. We spent the 1998 holiday in West Beirut, then our home. Since our neighborhood was predominantly Muslim, everything was open! (Also, the Lebanese knew that Santa can sell anything. For example, our local manousheh joint, Faysal’s, dressed an employee in a perfect jolly red suit and handed out chocolates.) Stephen and I were not big chefs or bakers yet (well, I’m still not), so we were hardly going to make a big dinner for two. We did the obvious thing: we ordered a pizza. Not obvious to you? As we sat and scarfed down a great New York-style pepperoni and mushroom pie, we decided we would always have pizza (or something styled after pizza) for Christmas. We have not broken that tradition in 20 years. There is dough resting on the kitchen table as I type…

1960s vintage tinikling postcard Christmas Philippines
A 1960s Christmas postcard from the Philippines, courtesy of the fabulous Pinoy Kollektor website.

The holidays have also been about our nuclear family, i.e. our dog(s). We sadly said goodbye to seventeen-year-old Jaya two years ago, and before that to fifteen-year-old Grover. This is our first Christmas with a little pipsqueak called Wile E. Dog. Her auntie and uncle brought her pigs’ ears, so she’s been just fine with the madness of the holidays.Wile-E-dog-pig-ear

And, yes, we have a parol—adjusted to 110v by our amazing Ate Edith! We give passing traffic seizures, but, hey, it’s festive.

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Finally, one of my favorite holiday traditions: good funky Christmas music. My favorite funk? Bootsy Collin’s Christmas is 4 Ever.

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One thing you will have to do without this season is Sugar Moon. It is still coming soon, but rewrites are thorough and ongoing. We are hoping for early 2019, certainly in the first half of the year. Until then, check out the teasers on this site. If you want something Christmas-y, also please check out the epilogue of my latest novella, Tempting Hymn. (Click on the image for a buy link.) Merry, merry.

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