The Story of Medicine: Pain, Pus & Poison
Acorn Media // Unrated // $39.99 // April 1, 2014
Review by Matt Hinrichs | posted March 25, 2014
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
Graphical Version

The Series:

You just gotta love something with "Contains disturbing images and medical situations" printed on the box - ready for some self-inflicted pain, Botox, and disgusting pictures of open sores?

The BBC documentary series The Story of Medicine: Pain, Pus & Poison presents its findings in the manner of that straining-to-be-hip science teacher you had in high school - similar to its cousin on PBS, Nova. Across all three installments, the combo of facts and levity makes for some very informative, enlightening viewing. Like Athena's She Wolves: England's Early Queens set from 2013, this 2-DVD package helps make history accessible through concise subjects, easy-to-follow narration, and smooth delivery from a personable expert host. In this case, our guide through the world of swollen lymph glands, lab mice and uncontrollable pandemics is physician and TV personality Dr. Michael Mosley (the Dr. Oz of Great Britain?).

Despite the attention-grabbing title, Pain, Pus & Poison is a rather straightforward (yet interesting) watch. The series covers 200 years of trial-and-error in humankind's efforts to grasp where diseases come from, and continued efforts on how to safely treat them. In each hour-long episode, Dr. Mosely guides the viewer through a specific aspect of medicinal history - with an accent on Europe. Mosely's thoughts are supplemented by a variety of experts speaking on the subject, on-site visits, colorful photography, and plenty of gross-out archival footage.

The Story of Medicine's two DVDs are arranged with Pain and Pus on the first disc; while Poison shares the second disc with 27 minutes of supplementary material.

  • Pain - In Pain, Dr. Mosley becomes a human guinea pig as he subjects himself to nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas) and other bygone pain relievers. Up until the late 19th century, pain was thought of as a natural part of the healing process. It was up to a few enterprising, madly experimental scientists to prove what we now take for granted - not having patients awake while enduring amputations and other horrifying things might make them healthier. The various methods of how pain relievers work is illustrated via stories on the discoveries of morphine, aspirin (made from the same coal-extracting process that produces heroin), chloral hydrate, ether and barbiturates.
  • Pus - Flesh-eating bacteria, gangrene, syphilis - the Pus episode leaves no icky stone unturned in showing the effects of deadly infections. Once thought to be caused by bad air, the efforts to conquer bacteria and viruses are recounted through breakthroughs with antibiotics and vaccines. Among the pioneers Mosley profiles is Paul Erlich, the scientist who tested 605 poisonous arsenic compounds before hitting on an effective syphilis treatment (his story was dramatized in the 1940 Edward G. Robinson film Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet). The program also covers the more recent (1960s-70s) epidemic of smallpox with Donald Henderson, the physician who shepherded the worldwide campaign to stamp out the disease.
  • Poison - Those who saw the recent American Experience installment The Poisoners' Handbook on PBS will find a lot to enjoy, especially since there isn't too much overlap between the two. Here, Mosley demonstrates the effects of atropine (a pupil-dilating liquid popular as a 19th century beauty enhancement), and recounts the devastating wrath of mustard gas in World War I. He also hosts a segment on botulinum - one of the world's most deadly bacterium, better known in its nerve-deadening form as Botox. The inverse effects of certain drugs is explored with the case of thalidomide. The sedative notorious for causing birth defects is still in use as an effective cure for leprosy - who knew?

Though Dr. Mosley comes across a bit too casually at first, his enthusiasm helps make The Story of Medicine: Pain, Pus & Poison an interesting journey. Being themed around a specific topic gives each episode a certain conciseness, yet there's also a lot of variation through the use of motion graphics and specialized experts. For fans of Nova or the less alien- or paranormal-oriented content on the National Geographic and Discovery channels, this program is along the same lines.

The DVD:

Athena's packaging on Pain, Pus, and Poison mirrors that of She Wolves: England's Early Queens. The slip-covered set comes in a hinged, standard-width keep-case with supplementary booklet.


The digitally photographed 16x9 image on The Story of Medicine: Pain, Pus & Poison has a pleasing, color-saturated look with a good amount of detail. With 79-104 minutes' running time spaciously alloted on each disc, the mastering is nicely done with no noticeable instances of aliasing or bad compression.


The provided stereo soundtrack mix is a decent listen with crystalline dialogue and a good balance between narration and background music. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided on all three episodes.


The DVD comes with a printed Viewers Guide (measuring about 4x5 inches) which supplements the material in the programs with 16 pages of information on medical breakthroughs, life expectancy around the world, ten popular poisons and other topics. On Disc 2, a separate program called Seven Wonders of the Microbe World is included. Totaling 27 minutes in length, each short is accessible from a single menu screen. The packaging also notes the existence of discussion questions (for teachers) at

Final Thoughts:

Suitable for high school or college curriculum - or anybody with a curiosity for the squeamish side of history - The Story of Medicine: Pain, Pus & Poison sifts through 200 years of diseases, infections and cures in a straightforward yet fun style. Icky and good. Recommended.

Copyright 2017 Inc. All Rights Reserved. Legal Info, Privacy Policy is a Trademark of Inc.