• You Bet Your Life

  • From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation
  • By: Paul A. Offit MD
  • Narrated by: James Noel Hoban
  • Length: 6 hrs and 36 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (95 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

One of America’s top physicians traces the history of risk in medicine - with powerful lessons for today.

Every medical decision - whether to have chemotherapy, an X-ray, or surgery - is a risk, no matter which way you choose. In You Bet Your Life, physician Paul A. Offit argues that, from the first blood transfusions 400 years ago to the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine, risk has been essential to the discovery of new treatments. More importantly, understanding the risks is crucial to whether, as a society or as individuals, we accept them.

Told in Offit’s vigorous and rigorous style, You Bet Your Life is an entertaining history of medicine. But it also lays bare the tortured relationships between intellectual breakthroughs, political realities, and human foibles. Our pandemic year has shown us, with its debates over lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, how easy it is to get everything wrong. You Bet Your Life is an essential listen for getting the future a bit more right.

©2021 Paul A. Offit, MD (P)2021 Basic Books

Critic Reviews

“In You Bet Your Life, Offit elucidates, using compelling case studies, how we come to know what we know in science and medicine: through a mix of imagination, experimentation, successes, misses and tragedies. It's a riveting story of what is possible when confidence and humility meet, and what seems inevitable when hubris dominates. Illuminating the Covid-19 pandemic and how we got to safe and effective vaccines so quickly, it is also a timeless read for anyone interested in science, ethics, discovery and how we can better prevent the next pandemic.” (Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation)

"What makes Paul Offit so special, beyond his extraordinary talents as a physician, vaccine-developer, and children’s advocate, is his ability to bring complicated scientific subjects to life. You Bet Your Life is the latest example - a thoughtful, beautifully written account of the risks and rewards of medical technology told through the eyes of the inventors and their patients.  Tragedy is an inevitable part of the process; breakthroughs come at a human cost, even those that have saved untold millions of lives.  To read this elegant book is grasp these ethical complexities - with a masterful medical writer as our guide." (David Oshinsky, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for Polio: An American Story)

“Offit is a fluid storyteller armed with decades of knowledge, and he provides an educative...reading experience.” (Kirkus)

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  • Overall
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Flat and Dull

I love books about medical history, but I had a hard time following this one. The author jumped around so much I found myself losing the point he was trying to make. The delivery of the narrator never varied in tone, which made it tough to pay attention.

2 people found this helpful

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Balanced presentations until the end

While each novel medical technique or therapy was conscientiously presented in a balanced format, reminding the reader of what was and was not known at the time, the social and societal setting, and the emphasis of these investigators to help humanity, I felt this format became very cursory as the last topic--Covid-19--was addressed. The vaccine technologies are in use in targeted therapy synthesis, long-term studies are not available as they are occurring along side the daily need to treat infected patients, over 400 Million cases worldwide and nearly 6 Million deaths. "Watchful waiting" has a significant cost.

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A doctor makes an argument for vaccine choice.

this book is so important during these times of government overreach and forced vaccination. we all have the right to make a choice with our health and experimental drugs

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Enjoyable and informative

If you are interested in the history of medicine and medical ethics, you will find this book fascinating. Offit focuses on major advances in medicine and discusses the human cost that led to these advances. History can be dry, but the best histories are the opposite when they bring persons and personalities back to life--this is true here. It is difficult not to be invested in the human dramas Offit describes. After the first chapter or two you begin to anticipate the plot: Oh no! Here is another person I am being introduced to, and if they are in this book, things almost certainly won't end well for them! Impending medical tragedy! But despite that, the book includes details that make you really care about these people and get sucked into what happened to them. Another thing I appreciated was how fresh the material was for me. I am a medical ethicist, a philosopher by training, and although I had studied the Jesse Gelsinger case before, most of the other episodes were partially or entirely new to me. I finished the book feeling like I had learned a lot about important moments in medical history and details that will enrich my understanding of medical advancements and how they affect people. So it wasn't just the human drama from the book I enjoyed, I also liked the book because I felt I learned so much. I had to give a couple of presentations this week and I found myself referring to something I had learned about in the book both times.