Modern medicine now influences the way people live and die more than Christian theology. That statement needs nuances to be defensible, but its basic cogency was clear at a recent forum on organ transplantation. There gathered some of the most advanced physicians and researchers in the world. A few dozen rows of scientific papers on exhibit—with elaborate statistical correlations and photos of dazzling, stainless steel technology—were a vivid reminder of just how powerful the medicine of the moment is. No longer does a worn-out heart or liver mean immediate death. There are more and more cures for our various ills, and they are more and more effective.

As one surgeon commented when he addressed the convention, the doctor’s role has shifted in the last 50 to 60 years. Improved sanitation, an assortment of polio and other vaccines, aseptic (infection-free) surgery, respirators, and X-ray machines are among the revolutionary developments, perfected if not originated in this century, that have practically altered the definition of medicine. As the surgeon commented, physicians at the turn of the century spent most of their time presiding over and observing illnesses they could not cure. Today, he implied, they spend less time “presiding” and more time curing.

With impressive technology and intricate knowledge, doctors are embarrassed when they cannot effect a cure. As a result, notes ethicist William May, they now avoid and deny death. Death is resisted whenever possible, and frank discussion of it is avoided when it becomes inevitable. For twentieth-century doctors, to admit death is to admit failure. They are “beaten” despite their formidable skill and machinery.

Of course, the effects ...

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