November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Edited by Rick Smolan, Phillip Moffitt and Matthew Naythons, M.D.

Whatever the general validity of the pictures vs. words cliché, in this case the photographs have the text beaten a million to one.

Smolan, founding father of the Darin the Life books, ex-Esquire editor Moffitt and doctor-photographer Naythons have created a volume that is basically a day in the life of life and death. Its 205 photographs from all over the world show the sick or injured—and those trying to avoid getting that way—as well as people who try to help them.

The photographs are not a total success. They are, most crucially, literally bloodless. There is hardly any blood to be seen, as if the book’s coffee-table potential might be hurt by showing, say, a close-up of surgery.

Nonetheless, there are many great photographers at work here: There is Nick Kelsh’s sunny portrait of year-old test-tube triplets sitting in a basket on the front lawn of Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, England. Randy Olson shows a quadriplegic working, with defiant determination, to strengthen his arms at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. In a Eugene Richards shot, Guinean boys lead elders blinded by a disease carried by parasites through a village.

The book’s text, mostly by a series of guest authors, is another proposition, showing a distinct bias toward exotic medical techniques. This extends to credulously describing, and implicitly prescribing, fringe ideas. A caption on a photo showing warm herbed sesame oil being poured on a woman’s head at the Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center in Lancaster, Mass., says the procedure will “reduce the body’s stress and bring about a state of bliss.”

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis recites a respectful history of premodern medicine, noting that “ancient Peruvians cut holes in the skulls of the living to provide disease with an avenue of escape” and showing no skepticism towards the efficacy of such surgery. A doctor to the Dalai Lama is quoted, uncritically, as saying that all illness is caused by “the ignorance arising through not recognizing the meaning of selflessness.” Death specialist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross makes the outrageous statement that “we have to teach children that anger is a blessing and a gift from heaven.”

When the text isn’t transcendental, it is often banal. In his introduction, Moffitt rambles, then says that “health and wellness are not an end goal, but are rather an ongoing process…the process of life itself.” i.e., most of us who are not dead are making a sincere effort to remain that way. Editor-author George Leonard, in an essay on the heart, concludes. “To heal the heart, we must change the way we live.”

At a few points the book shows more faith in orthodox techniques. A list of the century’s 13 greatest developments in medicine includes none—zero—that are at all outside modern, science-based medicine. In her essay, biographer Judith Thurman notes that the life expectancy of her grandfather, born in 1871, was about 35; that of her son, born in 1989, is 72.

But too often the acknowledgment of the achievements of mainstream medicine is compromised by digressions. Author Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, ends an essay on women in medicine with some sexist mumbo jumbo, citing Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman’s reputation as a healer: “In the tradition of ‘Dr. Tubman.’ who helped awaken the soul of an entire nation, today’s women healers may help revive the soul of modern medicine.”

Stuff a tongue depressor in it. Barb, and let us get back to looking at the pictures. (Prentice Hall Press, $40)

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