Famines have dropped the population to 1 billion and global civilization has collapsed. In an effort to save future civilization some time, you want to provide some information to kick start civilization's regrowth. We assume that the tech level has dropped back to Europe in 1801. If we knew it in 1801, they will know it.

You have to choose exactly three books or articles on medicine

(And only about human medicine. Other topics will be covered in other questions.) By virtue of a print-on-demand press and a generous internet connection (and minimal scruples about copyright law), you can get your hands on the text and diagrams of most any book/article in existence.

Any set of three books that appropriately maximizes the below criteria compared to any other set of books will be most preferred.

  • Readability to a broader scientific audience though this won't be the general public. This is intended to avoid problems like Newton's Principia that's basically unreadable to someone who wasn't a personal friend or contemporary of his.
  • ‎Breadth of coverage across all three books. The effects want to maximize knowledge transfer as much as possible.
  • ‎Content of each book should be strongly connected to the other two. There will be differences in terminology that arise as concepts not described in the books are rediscovered by the future scientists (they will come up with different names for things) . Having one book lead to another minimizes this kind of problem.
  • ‎First, or first clearest expository of a foundational concept or system for that field. (Principia is first but someone else wrote a clearer explanation later. Thus, the latter work is preferred over Principia. )
  • ‎Recognizable to someone in that field, in 1801, that the material in the book is about that field.
  • ‎Corrects misinformation or model failures in knowledge in this field at the target entry time. (Pick your favorite "I can't believe the early people got that wrong" moment. Fixing those moments is important and the primary hope of these books. )
  • Be as self-contained a set as possible. We cannot be sure that any other set of Three Books will be found to reinforce what's found in these books.
  • No restrictions on the original language of the book. A Rosetta Stone-style translation aide will be included with these books to assist future translators.

Printing off all the medical articles on Wikipedia won't satisfy because...reasons. Downloading all the articles off biorxiv.org won't work either. Only actual books will satisfy.

Preserving the books and translating them into many languages are solved problems. You're responsible only for picking the three books. These won't be electronic copies as we can't be assured that someone will have access to electronics when they find these books.

Note to Responders: Three books was chosen as it is a tractable small number and forces hard choices about which books are really worthy. You cannot get an entire field into three books, so don't try. How to store these books and how to make sure they are found is outside the scope of this book.

Further Note: I'm not willing to minimize the scope of the question from medicine to something like organic microbiology. The point of these questions is to provide a recovering civilization with an early stage jumpstart. Once they get to where they can only make progress with interdisciplinary research, that's out of scope. (Thank you Olga saying it so succinctly.)

This question is a part of the Only Three Books series. It will grow to cover many and diverse topics, thus, the fairly narrow scope.

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    $\begingroup$ One issue I see with books about medicine is that learning medicine requires a lot of hands-on practice and training. So I feel like while subjects like anatomy might be preserved in a book, medicine might not receive as much of a kick-start as, say, physics. Operating rooms will suffer. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 11, 2018 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ I don't really want surgery from someone whose only training is reading a book... $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 11, 2018 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Voting to close because the question is far too opinion-based. Even just the basics of medicine span thousands of pages in a multitude of manuals and books. And that's with a lot of assumed knowledge of biology and chemistry. I might add that books alone are hardly enough to train a doctor. You can't restart medicine with such paltry resources at more than an amateur level. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jan 11, 2018 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant meta question about the series: worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5758/…. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 11, 2018 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ This is a little bit subjective. Which books exactly are considered "best"? Do you want to maximize quality of life (this is itself subjective), productivity, life-span, etc...? I would try to get more specific about what exactly the character's goal is in selecting the books. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2018 at 19:19

2 Answers 2


Human Anatomy & Physiology  Describing the structure and function of the body will be a nice start. If you know how a body is put together, it's much easier to reason about what's going on. This won't help with metabolic diseases but that requires genetics, microbiology and a couple other fields.

The Mont Reid Surgical Handbook: Mobile Medicine Series, 7e If you're going to start cutting someone open to fix them, it's a good idea to know how to do it in such a way to minimize complications later. This book cover postoperative and preoperative care.

Wilderness First Responder: How To Recognize, Treat, And Prevent Emergencies In The Backcountry We don't know the state of medicine when these books are found. I assume that they won't really have much of anything. Wilderness First Responders or Woofers are specially trained to deal with medical emergencies when the common front-country tools aren't available. What do you when there's no hospitals or EMS around? Woofers are trained to handle that kind of situation.

It's impossible to compress the experiences gained in med school down to a few books. It can't be done. These books are designed to help people get started. These future would-be healers will get a good start on saving lives. They will have to learn by sad experience, just as our doctors now learn by experience. People will die based on what is found in these books but perhaps, fewer people will die than if these books were never found.


The hard part of kick-starting a medical revolution isn't providing the information, it's convincing people that your information is better than all the other information floating around. Health and medicine is a complex, largely statistical process, with effects such as the placebo effect, self-limiting conditions or regression toward the mean tending to confound any attempt to study it.

In the early 1800s, anatomy was well on its way to being a mature science, and simple physical medical procedures (such as bonesetting) were well understood. Microorganisms had been known for a century and a half, but their significance was still a complete mystery.

Book the first: A good wilderness first aid textbook.

The first step here is to convince people your techniques work. Where conventional first aid is about keeping the patient alive for the five minutes it takes the ambulance to arrive, wilderness first aid is about using minimal equipment to stabilize the patient for the week it takes to carry them to the evacuation site. If you don't have an evacuation, many of the techniques (such as preventing infection) are still applicable for keeping the patient alive and helping them recover.

Further, with the exception of antibiotics/antiseptics, virtually all of the techniques can be applied using 1800s materials, though you'll need to make sure the book you pick is one that tells how to field-sterilize wound dressings -- you can't just buy prepackaged sterile bandages from the store in 1800.

As a minor benefit, this is going to have references to other procedures such as surgical treatments. It won't give anywhere near enough detail to perform the procedures, but simply knowing that something is possible is a huge boost towards figuring out how to do it.

Book the second: An introductory bacteriology or bacterial pathology textbook

In the early 1800s, miasma theory was the prevailing theory of disease. If you're going to have any hope of getting medicine going, you'll need to convince people that germ theory is correct instead. This textbook builds off of the first-aid textbook: where that explains how to prevent disease and infection, this explains why it works.

A good textbook is going to cover things like Pasteur's experiments and Koch's postulates: things where an 1800s-vintage scientist can check the correctness of the information themselves. It's also nearly impossible to write such a textbook without mentioning either penicillin or the sulfa drugs; if people can figure out how to produce either, the resulting near-miraculous cures of infections will go a long way towards convincing people of your ideas. It's probably still going to take you a half-century or so to convince doctors that they should wash their hands between performing an autopsy and performing surgery.

Bonus points if this book has a section on sanitation engineering. Simply convincing people that the sewage outlet should be downstream of the water intake will give a huge boost to health.

Book the third: A textbook on statistics, with a focus on study design.

The study of medicine spent several thousand years chasing after universal, always-works cures and being confused by the placebo effect.

This book doesn't tie directly in with the other two. Rather, it gives the other essential starting point for modern medicine. When the simple act of giving someone a sugar pill makes them feel better, and a cold will go away in seven days if you treat it, and in a week if you don't, you need some way of figuring out which procedures work and which don't.

There are statistics textbooks with a focus on medicine; if you could find one that also covers gambling (to give it an immediate application), that would be ideal, but I don't think such a thing exists.

  • $\begingroup$ Would you happen to have good examples of these three books? I completely agree with your logic and reasoning. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jan 18, 2018 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ No, I don't. In the case of the wilderness first-aid book, it's because I don't have a specific recommendation; in the case of the other two, it's because I work with textbook publishers from time to time and can never remember which textbooks I am or am not allowed to admit to knowing about. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 18, 2018 at 5:20

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