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It has been an interesting month to read David France’s magisterial history of the AIDS crisis in the United States. As I sat down to the write this review, The Guardian reported that a Georgia state politician, Betty Price, had raised the possibility of isolating HIV positive individuals. ‘I don’t want to say the quarantine word ...

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of arguably the biggest single breakthrough in our knowledge of how immunity works. After years of uncertainty, it turned out that the immune system contains two major functional classes of white blood cells. One class recognises foreign organisms, such as invading bacteria or transplanted tissue from an incompatible organ do ...

In her long-form essay Dear Life, columnist and fiction writer Karen Hitchcock considers how we in Australia treat the elderly and dying. To the task she brings her formidable skills as a writer and her experience at the coalface, working as a staff physician in a Melbourne public hospital. The result is a sensitive, rigorous, and moving account that ex ...

In 2004 Carla Reed, a thirty-year-old kindergarten teacher, began to experience a cluster of mysterious symptoms. Bruises appeared and vanished ‘like stigmata’, and a numb headache and sudden exhaustion suggested that something was ‘terribly wrong’. Her pains were ghostly and mobile. When her doctors suggested migraines and prescribed aspirin, she demanded blood tests. She received a call to come back for more tests, and still recalls the urgency in the nurse’s voice. ‘Come now,’ Reed remembers her saying. ‘Come now.’

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I am a doctor. Once I was a doctor of individuals, now I am a ‘doctor of populations’. Population health is about actions to improve the health of communities, nations, and the world. Challenges are many: the mobility and density of populations, contemporary desires and pressures, the safety of food in complex systems, poverty, the immense power of big businesse ...

Making the Cut by Anthony Elliott & Skintight by Meredith Jones

November 2008, no. 306

In Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery is Transforming our Lives, Anthony Elliott casts an unforgiving eye over the astonishing growth of ‘cosmetic surgical culture’. No longer the province of the rich and famous, Botox and skin peels, laser surgery and liposuction, face-lifts and breast augmentations have become part of the fabric of everyday life. Elliott’s analysis lays bare the culture of nip and tuck, and the era in which ‘many are calculating that a freshly purchased face-lift or suctioning of fat through liposuction is the best route to improved lives, careers and relationships’. Yet what compels people to act upon the desire for self-improvement in such drastic and sometimes life-threatening ways? Elliott identifies celebrity, consumerism and globalisation as fundamental to the increasing popularity of surgical solutions to social and personal dilemmas.

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In Defence of Food is several books rolled into one. It is a primer on nutrition science, a contextual exposé on what we put in our mouths, an advertisement for the joys of eating and even something of a self-help diet and behavioural book. It is also part of Michael Pollan’s ongoing conversation with the reading (and eating) public, and is more satisfying when placed within his oeuvre, particularly The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006).

Mostly, though, In Defence of Food is a polemic about ‘the problem of the Western diet, and how we might plot our escape from it’. Pollan even cites a shiny new eating disorder for us to worry about: an ‘orthorexic’ is a person ‘with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating’. While Pollan writes about the United States, we only have to read the ingredient lists on our supermarket products, or reflect upon the controversy over the meat-heavy (or meat-rich, depending on your viewpoint) CSIRO diet books, to recognise the Australian relevance of the ‘Western diet’ debate.

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There is burgeoning interest in the history of psychiatric institutions and services in Australia. Catharine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s ‘Madness’ in Australia now sits alongside Stephen Garton’s Medicine and Madness (1998), Milton Lewis’s Managing Madness (1988) and numerous articles on the subject that have been published in recent years in local journals of medicine and psychiatry. Perhaps this interest represents the desire to record for posterity the role of the asylum and older-style treatments in the care of the mentally ill in the wake of new, cutting-edge national mental health policies and agendas. Possibly, the fascination represents an unconscious, necessarily forlorn attempt to undo, through revisiting, some of the abuses of psychiatric methods in the past. Whatever the reason, one of the problems faced by a slim tome such as this is that mental health services in Australia, since their inception, have been characterised by an extraordinary level of complexity and diversity. To capture their essence in a small, multi-author volume, and to provide a coherent, integrated synopsis, as the editors might have hoped, is probably not achievable. If, however, we are to view ‘Madness’ in Australia with less aspiration – as a collection of essays devoted to different, often novel, aspects of asylums and institutions – then it becomes an absorbing and welcome addition to the literature and furthers our understanding of these grand edifices.

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