THE AGE OF MIRACLES Medicine and Surgery In the Nineteenth Century By Guy Williams Academy Chicago. 234 pp. $16.95 Paperback, $8.95

DESPITE ITS promising title, Guy Williams' The Age of Miracles is sadly lacking in a sense of the wonder of scientific discovery. For the most part, it is a plodding, dutiful survey of the development, during the 19th century, of the foundation upon which much of modern medicine is based, written with too little drama and -- worse -- with too little effort to explain the scientific basis for the "miracles" in enough detail to allow a layman to appreciate their significance.

The book has its saving graces, but it takes a determined reader to endure long enough to find them. The early chapters, concerned with the 18th-century British surgeons William and John Hunter and their contemporaries, spend more time on the practitioners' rivalries and professional advancements than on their anatomic discoveries. It is not until the fourth chapter, "Body Snatchers," that The Age of Miracles begins to hold the reader's interest.

This fascinating chapter, the book's best, deals not with science but with the criminal black market in corpses that grew up in England to serve the surgeons' need for cadavers to dissect. At first, the body-snatchers or "resurrection men" robbed new graves, but eventually the demand -- and the price -- rose high enough to induce some to murder. Williams gives a deliciously grisly description of the methods of one trio, who sedated their young victim with rum mixed with laudanum, then tied a rope around his feet and lowered him head first into a well. "We . . . walked down Shoreditch to occupy the time," confessed one of the three, "and in three-quarters of an hour we returned, and took him out of the well, by pulling him by the cord."

Williams' appreciation of quirky personalities comes to the rescue in other instances. The book contains rewarding descriptions of endearingly eccentric medical giants like Jean-Martin Charcot and Florence Nightingale. Williams portrays Nightingale as a fanatic who shamelessly used her social influence, personal popularity and even blackmail to get the British bureaucracy to cooperate with her schemes to revolutionize the hospital system. "Three months from this day I publish my experiences of the Crimean campaign, and my suggestions for improvement, unless there has been a fair and tangible pledge by that time for reform," she threatened in a letter to an official.

Another bright spot is Williams' section on Charcot, a chief physician of Paris' great Salpe~trie`re asylum, who, by methodically examining thousands of the hospital's patients, made seminal discoveries in the fields of neurology and psychiatry. But here, as elsewhere, the book would be far better if it contained fuller descriptions of Charcot's scientific observations about disorders such as Parkinson's disease, syphilis and multiple sclerosis. The same problem recurs in the closing chapters, on William Conrad Roentgen's discovery of X-rays and Marie and Pierre Curie's isolation of radium: there is not even a cursory discussion of the principles of radiation or of how X-rays create images of the bones and organs.

I found this lack of scientific detail especially frustrating in the chapters on the century's dramatic advances in knowledge about infectious diseases. John Snow's proof that a London cholera epidemic had originated from a contaminated well known as the Broad Street Pump -- the first use of modern epidemiological methods -- merits a much fuller and more colorful account. Joseph Lister's development of antiseptics and Louis Pasteur's experiments disproving the theory of spontaneous generation are better treated, but the famous "postulates" set forth by Robert Koch -- the rules for proving that a disease is caused by a given organism -- are not even mentioned. And a later description of the parallel discoveries by Ronald Ross and Battista Grassi of the parasite that causes malaria is confusing and vague.

The Age of Miracles suffers from Williams' determination to include every aspect of medicine, including quackery. There is a long, boring chapter on spas and "water therapy" and another on "alternative medicine," under which Williams includes everything from herbalism to Ching's Worm Lozenges.

How much better it would have been to focus on understanding the century's true "miracles"! A single passage from Sigmund Freud on Charcot, quoted in the book, conveys the appreciation of true scientific vision that Williams seems to lack: "He {Charcot} was heard to say that the greatest satisfaction a man can experience is to see something new, that is, to recognize it as new, and he constantly returned with repeated observations to the subject of the difficulties and the value of such 'seeing.' "

Susan Okie is a physician and medical reporter for The Washington Post. She is the author, with former astronaut Sally Ride, of "To Space and Back."