Henderson Review of Bryson's "At Home"
By David Henderson
Bryson has pulled off a marvelous feat. He devotes almost every chapter to a room in his Victorian house in England. He then considers why the room is the way it is and what preceded it. In doing so he produces an important economic history, only some of which will be familiar to economic historians and almost all of which will be unfamiliar to pretty much everyone else. A large percentage of it is important, for two reasons: One, you get to pinch yourself, realizing just how wealthy you are; and two, you get a better understanding than you’ll get from almost any high school or college history textbook of the economic progress that made you wealthy. Not surprisingly, given that I’m an economist and Bryson isn’t, I have a few criticisms of places where he misleads by commission or omission. But At Home’s net effect on readers is likely to be a huge increase in understanding and appreciation of how we got to where we are.
Bryson tells just how primitive medical knowledge was before 1850 and sometimes even later than that. For example, virtually all doctors were men, and it was not considered proper for men to examine a woman’s private parts. The American Medication Association expelled a gynecologist named James Platt White for allowing his students to observe a woman giving birth, even though the woman had given them permission. Nor did doctors seem to understand much about germ theory. Bryson writes that when President James Abram Garfield was shot in 1881, he wasn’t killed by the bullet but by doctors “sticking their unwashed fingers in the wound.”