On January 19, 1963, the New Yorker published a 13,000-word essay, “Our Invisible Poor,” the longest book review the magazine had ever run. No piece of prose did more to make plain the atrocity of poverty in an age of affluence.
Ostensibly a review of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, which had all but disappeared since its publication in 1962, “Our Invisible Poor” took in a slew of other titles, along with a series of dreary economic reports, to demonstrate these facts: The poor are sicker than everyone else, but they have less health insurance; they have less money, but they pay more taxes; and they live where people with money seldom go.
What Dwight Macdonald explained was how a rising American middle class could have failed even to see poverty. “There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them,” Macdonald wrote. “Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.”
“Our Invisible Poor” is not boring. It is frank. “The poor are even fatter than the rich.” It is courageous. “The federal government is the only purposeful force,” he insisted, “that can reduce the number of the poor and make their lives more bearable.” And it is smart. What Macdonald did, in a way that few people do anymore, was to digest a complex and specialized field of academic scholarship for a popular audience. He cared about facts and evidence. He just didn’t like the way academics wrote: without force, without passion and without, apparently, the ability to tell the difference between an important finding and a mind-bogglingly obvious one. “Although it is impossible to write seriously about poverty without a copious use of statistics,” Macdonald insisted, “it is possible to bring thought and feeling to bear on such raw material.” He knew how to sting.
The Other America sold 70,000 copies the year after Macdonald’s essay was published (the book has since sold more than a million copies). “Our Invisible Poor” was one of the most widely read essays of its day. Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, gave John F. Kennedy a copy. The president charged Heller with launching a legislative assault on poverty. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson took up that charge, waging a war on poverty. He lost that war.
In the years since, with the rise of a conservative movement opposed to the basic tenets of Macdonald’s interpretation and Johnson’s agenda, the terms of the debate have changed. Government, Macdonald believed, was the solution. No, Ronald Reagan argued, citing the failures of Johnson’s War on Poverty, government is the problem.
“The worst part of being old and poor in this country,” Macdonald wrote, “is the loneliness.” Something, he knew, had to be done. He wanted everyone who read “Our Invisible Poor” to see that, too. The problem is, we’ve never been able to agree about who ought to do it.
Like this article?
SIGN UP for our newsletter
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Erwin H. Ackerknecht’s A Short History of Medicine is a concise narrative, long appreciated by students in the history of medicine, medical students, historians, and medical professionals as well as all those seeking to understand the history of medicine.
Covering the broad sweep of discoveries from parasitic worms to bacilli and x-rays, and highlighting physicians and scientists from Hippocrates and Galen to Pasteur, Koch, and Roentgen, Ackerknecht narrates Western and Eastern civilization’s work at identifying and curing disease. He follows these discoveries from the library to the bedside, hospital, and laboratory, illuminating how basic biological sciences interacted with clinical practice over time. But his story is more than one of laudable scientific and therapeutic achievement. Ackerknecht also points toward the social, ecological, economic, and political conditions that shape the incidence of disease. Improvements in health, Ackerknecht argues, depend on more than laboratory knowledge: they also require that we improve the lives of ordinary men and women by altering social conditions such as poverty and hunger.
This revised and expanded edition includes a new foreword and concluding biographical essay by Charles E. Rosenberg, Ackerknecht’s former student and a distinguished historian of medicine. A new bibliographic essay by Lisa Haushofer explores recent scholarship in the history of medicine.
Erwin H. Ackerknecht (1906–1988), a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Zurich from 1957 to 1971 and one of the world’s most distinguished medical historians, was the author of Short History of Psychiatry and Medicine at the Paris Hospital, 1794–1848. Charles E. Rosenberg is the Ernest E. Monrad Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of the history of science emeritus at Harvard University. He is the author of Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now and The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866.
"A concise, readable, and authoritative introduction to the history of medicine."
— Annals of Internal Medicine
"At first glance it seems inconceivable that a historian could, in a brief text, adequately capture the history of medicine from primitive times through early civilizations, classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and up to the mid-twentieth century. Edwin H. Ackerknecht accomplishes this task and he does it with verve, clarity, and style."
— Nursing History Review
"This History fills a real gap. The author has succeeded in presenting the history of medicine in a well-balanced way that makes fascinating reading. In all this is a well-rounded book which [should be] in every medical student's hands."
— Bulletin of the History of Medicine
"...A Short History of Medicine is a useful resource for those interested in studying Western medicine."
"Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers and faculty; professionals and practitioners."
"In the publication A Short History of Medicine by Erwin H. Ackernect, Revised and Expanded, the author gives a relatively concise, but demanding exploration and examination of the background of medicine... The potential lifesaving and life-enhanching information regarding this vital concern is highly recommended for the enlightenment and the education of the reader."
— M.G. Paregian
"Both as an account of the past and as an object of study, then, A Short History of Medicine is a book with which it is well worth engaging."
— British Journal for the History of Science
"... the combination of his guide to Western medical developments, Rosenberg’s foreword and essay and Haushofer’s bibliographical essay, should ensure that Ackerknecht’s A Short History of Medicine continues to warrant a place on our reading lists, especially for those courses directed at medical students."
— Social History of Medicine