English Literature

Doctor and Patient by S. Weir Mitchell

Doctor and Patient by S. Weir Mitchell.jpg


The essays which compose this volume deal chiefly with a variety of subjects to which every physician must have given more or less thought. Some of them touch on matters concerning the mutual relation of physician and patient, but are meant to interest and instruct the laity rather than the medical attendant. The larger number have from their nature a closer relation to the needs of women than of men.

It has been my fate of late years to have in my medical care very many women who, from one or another cause, were what is called nervous. Few of them were so happily constituted as to need from me neither counsel nor warnings. Very often such were desired, more commonly they were given unsought, as but a part of that duty which the physician feels, a duty which is but half fulfilled when we think of the body as our only province.

Many times I have been asked if there were no book that helpfully dealt with some of the questions which a weak or nervous woman, or a woman who has been these, would wish to have answered. I knew of none, nor can I flatter myself that the parts of this present little volume, in which I have sought to aid this class of patients, are fully adequate to the purpose.

I was tempted when I wrote these essays to call them lay sermons, so serious did some of their subjects seem to me. They touch, indeed, on matters involving certain of the most difficult problems in human life, and involve so much that goes to mar or make character, that no man could too gravely approach such a task. Not all, however, of these chapters are of this nature, and I have, therefore, contented myself with a title which does not so clearly suggest the preacher.

It would be scarcely correct to state that their substance or advice was personally addressed to those still actually nervous. To them a word or two of sustaining approval, a smiling remonstrance, or a few phrases of definite explanation, are all that the wise and patient doctor should then wish to use. Constant inquiries and a too great appearance of what must be at times merely acted interest, are harmful.

When I was a small boy, my father watched me one day hoeing in my little garden. In reply to a question, I said I was digging up my potatoes to see if they were growing. He laughed, and returned, “When you are a man, you will find it unwise to dig up your potatoes every day to see if they are growing.” Nor has the moral of his remark been lost on me. It is as useless to be constantly digging up a person’s symptoms to see if they are better, and still greater folly to preach long sermons of advice to such as are under the despotism of ungoverned emotion, or whirled on the wayward currents of hysteria. To read the riot act to a mob of emotions is valueless, and he who is wise will choose a more wholesome hour for his exhortations. Before and after are the preacher’s hopeful occasions, not the moment when excitement is at its highest, and the self-control we seek to get help from at its lowest ebb.

There are, as I have said, two periods when such an effort is wise,—the days of health, or of the small beginnings of nervousness, and of the uncontrol which is born of it, and the time when, after months or years of sickness, you have given back to the patient physical vigor, and with it a growing capacity to cultivate anew those lesser morals which fatally wither before the weariness of pain and bodily weakness.

When you sit beside a woman you have saved from mournful years of feebleness, and set afoot to taste anew the joy of wholesome life, nothing seems easier than with hope at your side, and a chorus of gratitude in the woman’s soul, to show her how she has failed, and to make clear to her how she is to regain and preserve domination over her emotions; nor is it then less easy to point out how the moral failures, which were the outcome of sickness, may be atoned for in the future, now that she has been taught to see their meaning, their evils for herself, and their sad influence on the lives of others.

To preach to a mass of unseen people is quite another and a less easy matter. I approach it with a strong sense that it may have far less certain utility than the advice and exhortation addressed to the individual with such force as personal presence, backed by a knowledge of their peculiar needs, may give. I am now, then, for the first time, in the position of the higher class of teachers, who lay before a multitude what will be usefully assimilated by the few.

If my power to say what is best fitted to help my readers were as large as the experience that guides my speech, I should feel more assured of its value. But sometimes the very excess of the material from which one is to deduce formulas and to draw remembrances is an embarrassment, for I think I may say without lack of modesty in statement, that perhaps scarce any one can have seen more of women who have been made by disease, disorder, outward circumstance, temperament, or some combination of these, morbid in mind, or been tormented out of just relation to the world about them.

The position of the physician who deals with this class of ailments, with the nervous and feeble, the painworn, the hysterical, is one of the utmost gravity. It demands the kindliest charity. It exacts the most temperate judgments. It requires active, good temper. Patience, firmness, and discretion are among its necessities. Above all, the man who is to deal with such cases must carry with him that earnestness which wins confidence. None other can learn all that should be learned by a physician of the lives, habits, and symptoms of the different people whose cases he has to treat. From the rack of sickness sad confessions come to him, more, indeed, than he may care to hear. To confess is, for mysterious reasons, most profoundly human, and in weak and nervous women this tendency is sometimes exaggerated to the actual distortion of facts. The priest hears the crime or folly of the hour, but to the physician are oftener told the long, sad tales of a whole life, its far-away mistakes, its failures, and its faults. None may be quite foreign to his purpose or needs. The causes of breakdowns and nervous disaster, and consequent emotional disturbances and their bitter fruit, are often to be sought in the remote past. He may dislike the quest, but he cannot avoid it. If he be a student of character, it will have for him a personal interest as well as the relative value of its applicative side. The moral world of the sick-bed explains in a measure some of the things that are strange in daily life, and the man who does not know sick women does not know women.

I have been often asked by ill women if my contact with the nervous weaknesses, the petty moral deformities of nervous feminine natures, had not lessened my esteem for woman. I say, surely, no! So much of these is due to educational errors, so much to false relationships with husbands, so much is born out of that which healthfully dealt with, or fortunately surrounded, goes to make all that is sincerely charming in the best of women. The largest knowledge finds the largest excuses, and therefore no group of men so truly interprets, comprehends, and sympathizes with woman as do physicians, who know how near to disorder and how close to misfortune she is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature, which evolve in health the flower and fruitage of her perfect life.

With all her weakness, her unstable emotionality, her tendency to morally warp when long nervously ill, she is then far easier to deal with, far more amenable to reason, far more sure to be comfortable as a patient, than the man who is relatively in a like position. The reasons for this are too obvious to delay me here, and physicians accustomed to deal with both sexes as sick people will be apt to justify my position.

It would be easy, and in some sense valuable, could a man of large experience and intelligent sympathies write a book for women, in which he would treat plainly of the normal circle of their physiological lives; but this would be a method of dealing with the whole matter which would be open to criticism, and for me, at least, a task difficult to the verge of the impossible. I propose a more superficial plan as on the whole the most useful. The man who desires to write in a popular way of nervous women and of her who is to be taught how not to become that sorrowful thing, a nervous woman, must acknowledge, like the Anglo-Saxon novelist, certain reputable limitations. The best readers are, however, in a measure co-operative authors, and may be left to interpolate the unsaid. A true book is the author, the book and the reader. And this is so not only as to what is left for the reader to fill in, but also has larger applications. All this may be commonplace enough, but naturally comes back to one who is making personal appeals without the aid of personal presence.

Because what I shall write is meant for popular use rather than for my own profession, I have made my statements as simple as possible. Scarcely a fact I state, or a piece of advice I give, might not be explained or justified by physiological reasoning which would carry me far beyond the depth of those for whom I wrote. All this I have sedulously avoided.

What I shall have to say in these pages will trench but little on the mooted ground of the differences between men and women. I take women as they are to my experience. For me the grave significance of sexual difference controls the whole question, and, if I say little of it in words, I cannot exclude it from my thought of them and their difficulties. The woman’s desire to be on a level of competition with man and to assume his duties is, I am sure, making mischief, for it is my belief that no length of generations of change in her education and modes of activity will ever really alter her characteristics. She is physiologically other than the man. I am concerned with her now as she is, only desiring to help her in my small way to be in wiser and more healthful fashion what I believe her Maker meant her to be, and to teach her how not to be that with which her physiological construction and the strong ordeals of her sexual life threaten her as no contingencies of man’s career threaten in like measure or like number the feeblest of the masculine sex.


I have long had in mind to write from a physician’s point of view something in regard to the way in which the well-trained man of my profession does his work. My inclination to justify the labors and sentiments of an often misunderstood body of men was lately reinforced by remarks made to me by a very intelligent patient. I found him, when I entered my room, standing before an admirable copy of the famous portrait of the great William Harvey, the original of which is in the Royal College of Physicians. After asking of whom it was a likeness, he said, “I should be a little curious to know how he would have treated my case.”

I had to confess that of Harvey’s modes of practice we know little, but I took down from a shelf those odd and most interesting letters of Howell’s, clerk of council to James I., and turned to his account of having consulted Harvey on returning home from Spain. Only too briefly he tells what was done for him, but was naturally most concerned about himself and thus missed a chance for us, because it so happens that we know little of Harvey. At this page of Howelliana was a yellow paper-marker. Once the book was Walpole’s, and after him was Thackeray’s, and I like to fancy that Walpole left the marker, and that Thackeray saw it and left it, too, as I did.

My patient, who liked books, was interested, and went on to say that he had seen several physicians in Europe and America. That in France they always advised spas and water-cure, and that at least three physicians in America and one in London had told him there was nothing the matter with him, and that finally a shrewd country doctor had remarked bluntly that he would not give him any medicine, because he was overdosed already with work and worries, which was true.

At last he came back to Harvey. “He looks ill,” he said, which is true. His honestly-painted knuckles make diagnosis easy. My friend thought that this great man would probably have dosed him well, and, as he added, would not have bothered him about too much sugar, nor forbidden champágne. I had to reply that whatever ills were in the England of that day,—and there was much dyspepsia and much gout,—sugar was the luxury of the rich, and anything but as abundant as it is to-day, when we consume annually fifty-six pounds per head or per stomach. I told him that in all ages the best of us would have dwelt most on diet and habits of living, and that Harvey was little likely to have been less wise than his peers, and he has had but few. Then he said it would be curious to put on paper a case, and to add just what a doctor in each century would have ordered. The idea struck me as ingenious and fertile. I could wish that some one would do this thing. It would, I think, be found that the best men of every time were most apt to consider with care the general habits of their patients as to exercise and diet, and to rely less than others on mere use of drugs. As to this matter, one learns more from men’s lives than from their books, but nowadays care as to matters of hygiene has become in a valuable degree the common wisdom of a large part of my profession. Surveying our vast gains, we are a little apt to undervalue the men of older days, and no lesson is wiser than sometimes to go back and see how the best of them thought and acted amidst the embarrassments of imperfect knowledge.

There is a charming life by Henry Morley, of Cardan, the great Italian physician and algebraist, which gives us in accurate detail the daily routine of a doctor’s days in the sixteenth century. In it is an account of Cardan’s professional visit in 1551 to John Hamilton, archbishop of St. Andrew’s, Scotland, and practically the ruler of that turbulent realm. Cardan’s scientific opinion as to his patient is queer enough, but, as Morley remarks, it is probably not more amusing to us than will be our opinion in a like case to the smiling brother of our guild who may chance to read it at some remote future day. The physician of whom I now write was one who already dreaded bleeding, thought less of medicines than his fellows, and was, in fact, exceptionally acute. He did some droll things for the sick prelate, and had reasons yet more droll for what he did, but his practice was, as may happen on the whole, wiser than his reasons for its use. His patient was a man once bulky, but now thin, overworked, worried, subject to asthma, troubled with a bad stomach, prone to eat largely of coarse food, but indisposed to physical exercise. Cardan advised that the full, heated head, of which his patient much complained, should be washed night and morning with hot water in a warm room, and then subjected to a cold shower-bath. Next was to come a thorough dry rubbing, and rest for two hours. As to his asthma, he forbade him to subject himself to night air or rainy weather. He must sleep on silk, not feathers, and use a dry pillow of chopped straw or sea-weed, but by no means of feathers. He forbade suppers if too late, and asked the reverend lord to sleep ten hours, and even to take time from study or business and give it to bed. He was to avoid purgatives, to breakfast lightly, and to drink slowly at intervals four pints a day of new asses’ milk. As to other matters, he was to walk some time in the shade at an early hour, and, discussing the time for the fullest meal, Cardan remarks that established habits as to this point are not to be lightly considered. His directions as to diet are many, reasonable, and careful. His patient, once stout, had become perilously thin. Turtle-soup and snail-broth would help him. Cardan insisted also on the sternest rules as to hours of work, need for complete rest, daily exercise, and was lucky enough to restore his patient to health and vigor. The great churchman was grateful, and seems to have well understood the unusual mental qualities of his physician. Nothing on the whole could be better than the advice Cardan gave, and the story is well worth reading as an illustration of the way in which a man of genius rises above the level of the routine of his day.

I might go farther back in time, and show by examples that the great fathers of medicine have usually possessed a like capacity, and learned much from experience of that which, emphasized by larger use and explained by scientific knowledge, has found its way into the text-books of our own day and become common property.

It appears to me from a large mental survey of the gains of my profession, that the English have above all other races contributed the most towards enforcing the fact that on the whole dietetics, what a man shall eat and drink, and also how he shall live as to rest, exercise, and work, are more valuable than drugs, and do not exclude their use.[1]

[Footnote 1: By this I mean that the physician, if forced to choose between absolute control of the air, diet, exercise, work, and general habits of a patient, and use of drugs without these, would choose the former, and yet there are cases where this decision would be a death-warrant to the patient.]

The active physician has usually little time nowadays to give to the older books, but it is still a valuable lesson in common sense to read, not so much the generalizations as the cases of Whytt, Willis, Sydenham, and others. Nearer our own day, Sir John Forbes, Bigelow, and Flint taught us the great lesson that many diseases are self-limited, and need only the great physician, Time, and reasonable dietetic care to get well without other aid.

There is a popular belief that we have learned this from homoeopathy, for the homoeopath, without knowing it, made for us on this matter ample experiments, and was as confident he was giving powerful medicines as we are that he was giving practically none. “He builded better than he knew,” and certainly his results aided our ablest thinkers to reach the truth.

I have named one of the most illustrious of physicians, Sydenham, as among the great Englishmen who brought to their work the clearest perception of how nature was to be best aided. He will answer admirably to exemplify my meaning.

Sydenham was born in 1624, and lived in and through the wild periods of Charles I. and Cromwell, and was himself a stanch republican. He more than any other in his century decisively taught caution as to mere medication, and sedulously brought the clear light of common sense to bear upon the practice of his time. It is interesting to note, as his biographer remarks, that his theories were often as worthless as his practice was good. Experience taught him to do that for which he felt forced to find a reason, and the reason was often enough absurd. “The contrast gives a fine light and shadow effect in his biography.”[2]

[Footnote 2: R.G. Latham, p. xxxvi.]

His systematic beliefs were ofttimes worthless, but great acuteness in observation was apt to lead him to do wisely in individual cases what was at variance with his creed. Speaking of Hippocrates, he says, “His system led him to assist nature, to support her when enfeebled and to the coercion of her when she was outrageous.”

As to mere drugs, Sydenham used them in what was for his day an extremely moderate fashion, and sagaciously limited in the old and young his practice as to bleeding, which was then immensely in vogue. The courage required to treat smallpox, measles, and even other fevered states by cooling methods, must have been of the highest, as it was boldly in opposition to the public and private sentiment of his day. He had, too, the intelligence to learn and teach that the Jesuit bark, cinchona, was a tonic as well as the master of the agues, so common in the England of his time.

He is at his best, however, in his statement of how he treated individual cases, for then his written theories are given to the winds, or the practice is far beyond the creed in its clear common-sense value.

Thus, horseback exercise he constantly speaks of. He tells you of a friend who had been much dosed by many for dyspepsia, and how he bade him ride, and abandon drugs, and how, after a thousand miles of such riding, he regained health and vigor. See how this wise man touches the matter of gout: “For years a man has feasted; has omitted his usual exercises; has grown slow and sluggish; has been overstudious or overanxious, etc.” Then he reasons about “smothering the animal spirits, which are the primary instruments of concoction,” and so on, but at last he says, “We must look beyond medicines. Wise men do this in gout and in all other chronic diseases.” And what does he advise? Here is the substance of what he says. A gouty man must be moderate, not too abstinent, so as to get weak. One meat is best; mixtures are bad. A milk diet “has prevailed,” only bread being added, but it must be rigid and has its risks. He seems to have kept a nobleman on milk a year. Also there must be total abstinence from wine and all fermented liquors. Early bed hours and early rising are for the gouty. Then there come wise words as to worry and overwork. But, above all, the gouty must ride on horseback and exercise afoot. As to the wilder passions of men, he makes this strangely interesting remark, “All such the old man should avoid, for,” he says, “by their indulgence he thus denies himself the privilege of enjoying that jubilee which by the special and kind gift of nature is conceded to old men: of whom it is the natural and happy lot to be emancipated from the control of those lusts which during youth attacked them.”

This is a fair specimen of a master at his best. I would rather have trusted Sydenham, with all his queer theories, than many a man with the ampler resources of to-day; for his century may aid but does not make the true physician, who is not the slave, but the master, of opinions.

To enforce again the fact that the greater men of my art, even in days of the most extreme theories, were more sensible in their daily practice than in their dogmatic statements, I would like to quote a letter of Rush, which for several reasons is interesting and valuable. No man was more positive in his beliefs and in the assertion of them than he. His name is still associated with bleeding and purging, and if we considered only some of his written assertions, made with the violence which opposition always aroused in his positive nature, we should pause in wonder at his great reputation. But what a man says or writes, and what he does, are often far apart. We are apt to take his most decisive statements as representative, and thus may seriously err. I have known a number of men who were really trustworthy physicians, and who yet were credited by us with a fondness for absurd ideas, which, in fact, influenced their writings far more than their practice. Rush was to some extent one of this class. His book on insanity is far in advance of his time, and his descriptions of disease one of our best tests, most admirable. Let us see how this physician who bled and dosed heavily could think and act when face to face with a hopeless case. The letter to which I have referred was given to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia at my request by one of its associate fellows, Dr. Hunter Maguire, of Richmond, Virginia. It is written to Rush’s cousin, Dr. Thornton, in 1789, and has an added interest from the fact that it is a letter of advice in the case of the aged mother of Washington, who had a cancer of the breast.

“PHILADELPHIA, July 6, 1789.


The respectable age and character of your venerable patient leads me to regret that it is not in my power to suggest a remedy for the cure of the disorder you have described in her breast. I know nothing of the root that you mention as found in Carolina and Georgia, but, from a variety of inquiries and experiments, I am disposed to believe that there does not exist in the vegetable kingdom an antidote to cancers. All the vegetable remedies I have heard of are composed of some mineral caustics. The arsenic is the most powerful of any of them. It is the basis of Dr. Martin’s powder. I have used it in many cases with some success, but have failed in some. From your account of Mrs. Washington’s breast, I am afraid no great good can be expected from the use of it. Perhaps it may cleanse it, and thereby retard its spreading. You may try it diluted in water. Continue the application of opium and camphor, and wash it frequently with a decoction of red clover. Give anodynes when necessary, and support the system with bark and wine. Under this treatment she may live comfortably many years, and finally die of old age.”

He had here to deal with cancer, a disease which he knew to be incurable. His experience taught him, however, that in the very old this malady is slow and measured in its march, and that he could only aid and not cure. What he says might with slight change have been penned to-day. We have gone no further in helpfulness as regards this sad disease.

If what I write now is to have for the laity any value, it will be in correcting certain of their judgments as to physicians, and in suggesting to them some of the tests which will enable them to exercise a reasonable judgment as to those in whose hands they place so often without a thought the issues of life and death and the earthly fates of their dearest.

I began, somewhat discursively, by showing how much care the masters of my art gave even in past days to matters of diet and modes of life. This is still to-day a test of larger applicability. There are those of my profession who have a credulity about the action of drugs, a belief in their supreme control and exactness of effect which amounts to superstition, and fills many of us with amazement. This form of idolatry is at times the dull-witted child of laziness, or it is a queer form of self-esteem, which sets the idol of self-made opinion on too firm a base to be easily shaken by the rudeness of facts. But, if you watched these men, you would find them changing their idols. Such too profound belief in mere drugs is apt, especially in the lazy thinker, to give rise to neglect of more natural aids, and these tendencies are strengthened and helped by the dislike of most patients to follow a schedule of life, and by the comfort they seem to find in substituting three pills a day for a troublesome obedience to strict rules of diet, of exercise, and of work.

The doctor who gives much medicine and many medicines, who is continually changing them, and who does not insist with care on knowing all about your habits as to diet, mealtimes, sleep, modes of work, and hours of recreation, is, on the whole, one to avoid. The family doctor is most of all apt to fail as to these details, especially if he be an overworked victim of routine, and have not that habitual vigilance of duty which should be an essential part of his value. He is supposed to have some mysterious knowledge of your constitution, and yet may not have asked you a medical question in months or years. Too much is taken for granted, and inefficient opinions are the outcome of carelessness. Every new case in a household should be dealt with as if it were a stranger’s, and outside familiarity should not be allowed to breed contempt of caution in study or lead to half measures. Every consultant will agree with me that this kind of social nearness of the doctor to his patient is a common cause of inert advice, and nowhere more distinctly so than when unwise physicians attempt to practise in their own households on those they love.

There are very few instances of chronic ailments, however slight, which should not be met by advice as to modes of living, in the full breadth of this term; and only by a competent union of such, with reasonable use of drugs, can all be done most speedily that should be done. I have said “with use of drugs,” for I am far from wishing to make any one believe that medicines are valueless. Nor do I think that the most extreme dosing employed nowadays by any one is as really hurtful as the neglect to urge efficiently the value of definite hygienic means. There are, indeed, diseases which can only be helped by heroic measures; but, in this case, were I the patient, I should like to be pretty certain as to the qualifications of my hero.

The popular view of the great hurtfulness of drugs is curiously fallacious. I have spoken above more of their relative usefulness, as compared to other means of relief, than with any desire to convince my readers that they are such terrible things as some kinds of practitioners would have us to believe. The dread of their employment is a relic of the time of reaction against the senseless and excessive dosing with calomel and strong purges, and nowadays, even as regards bleeding, once wholly abandoned, it is clear that it still has at times its uses, and valuable ones, too. As medicines are now employed, even by the thoughtless, it must be rarely that they give rise to permanent injury. Let any physician who reads these lines pause and reflect how many times in his life he has seen lasting or serious evil results from drugs.

Accidents happen, but they are the offspring of carelessness. Sometimes, also, unexpected and temporary extreme results surprise us, as when an opiate purges, or five grains of an iodide prove to be gravely poisonous. These occurrences are due to individual peculiarities, which we can as yet neither explain nor anticipate. One man can take opium with almost the impunity which belongs naturally to birds. Another is put to sleep by the dose you give a baby. All this teaches caution, but it is not a matter for blame when it gives rise to alarming consequences, and happily these cases of what we call idiosyncrasies are exceptionally uncommon.

Physicians are often enough tempted to give a simple placebo to patients who are impatient, and ask instant treatment when we know that time is what we want, either for study of present symptoms or to enable the growing disorder to spell itself out for us, as it were, letter by letter, until its nature becomes clear. The practice is harmless, but there is, of course, a better way, if we possess the entire confidence of the patient or his friends. But sometimes it is undesirable to give explanations until they can be securely correct, or haply the sick man is too ill to receive them. Then we are apt, and wisely, to treat some dominant symptom, and to wait until the disease assumes definite shape. So it is that much of what we thus give is mild enough. The restless mother is the cause with some doctors of much of this use of mere harmless medicines. I once expressed surprise in a consultation that an aged physician, who had called me in, should be so desirous of doing something, when I as earnestly wished to wait. At last he said, “Doctor, it is not the child I want to dose; it is the mother’s mind.” Perhaps the anecdote may not be lost on some too solicitous woman, who naturally desires that the doctor should be doing something just when he is most anxious to be doing nothing.

Men yet live who can remember when all of our knowledge of disease was acquired by the unaided use of the eye, the ear, and the touch. The physician felt the pulse, and judged of fever by the sense of warmth. He looked at the skin and tongue and the secretions, and formed conclusions, more or less just in proportion to the educated acuteness of his senses and the use he made of these accumulations of experience. The shrewdness of the judgments thus formed shows us, to our wonder, how sharply he must have trained his senses, and has led some to suspect that our easier and more exact methods and means may have led us to bestow less care in observation than did these less aided and less fortunate students. The conclusion is, I am sure, erroneous, and I am confident that the more refined the means the more do they train us to exactness in all directions, so that even what we now do with the eye, ear, or hand alone is better and more carefully done than when the senses had none of the training due to the use of instruments of precision. I may add that the results of their employment have also made it easy in many cases to dispense with them, and to interpret readily what has been won by the unassisted sense.

The history of precision in medicine is worth the telling, if only to teach the lay reader something of that vast struggle to know the truths of disease, which is little understood beyond the ranks of the most scholarly of my profession. The first step was due to Galileo. In 1585 he used his pendulum to record the pulse, in a fashion at which we smile to-day, and yet what he tried to do was the birth of precision in medicine. Keeping a finger on the pulse, he set a pendulum in motion. If it went faster than the pulse, he put the weight a little lower, or as I may state it to make it clearer, he lengthened the pendulum. At last when it moved so as to beat equal time with the pulse, he measured the length of the swinging bar, and set down the pulse as, say ten inches; next day it might be set at six, and so a record was made. He was soon lost to medicine, but in 1625, Santorini, known to science as Sanctorius, published a curious book, called “Commentaries on Avicenna,” in which he figured a variety of similar instruments, called “pulsilograms.” We owe to him some of the first accurate studies of diet, and also the discovery of the insensible perspiration, but his pulsilogram was soon forgotten.

I think that Harvey but once or twice mentions the number of the pulse even in his physiological books. In the case descriptions of his time and of Sydenham’s it is rare to find it noted, and this is true as a rule all through the next century. The exceptions are interesting. In Whytte’s works, circa1745, he not rarely mentions the pulse number in connection with his primary delineation of a case, but after that does not often speak of its subsequent changes in number. The force and other characters of the pulse receive, however, immense attention, and are on the whole more valuable aids than mere numeration; but that cannot nowadays be left out of our calculations, yet as early as the reign of Anne, about 1710, an English physician, Sir John Floyer, wrote an able and now half-forgotten book, quaintly called the “Pulse Watch.” I am pretty sure that he was the first to put a minute-hand on a watch to enable him to time the pulse-beat, but nowhere in any English collection have I been able to find one of his watches. Thus aided, he was the first to count the minute’s pulse, which is now a sort of recognized and accepted matter as standard of comparison, so that we say merely, the pulse was 60 or 90, as may chance, and do not even speak of the minute. It is as true as strange that this convenient method was practically lost to habitual use in medicine for quite a hundred years. It reappeared in the writings of the time of the great teachers who arose in France and Germany about 1825. To-day, in case of need, we have instruments which write in instructive curves the form of the pulse-wave, and enable us to settle questions which sometimes could not be settled without this delicate means.

The study of the temperature of the body was, as I have said, a mere matter of the touch until our same Galileo applied a thermometer to learn more accurately its changes. Sanctorius again followed in his steps, and has left us in his works curious drawings of forms of thermometer applicable to medical uses. Our profession is, however, inapt to hold on to useless things, and our knowledge of fever, its risks and its remedies, was for many a day far behind any need for the delicate appreciations of the thermometer.

Hence it is that very few physicians did more in the last three centuries as regards the temperature of the body than speak of it as high or low. Sanctorius was too far ahead of his time to teach us the true value of medical thermometry. It was forgotten for many a day. In the last century, in Dehaen and Hunter, it again receives some notice, and again drops out of use. At last we are ripe for it, and Wunderlich, in a classical book, about twenty-five years ago, puts it in a position of permanent utility. The physician of to-day knows more both of fever and of its consequences, and finds in his thermometer an indispensable ally.

Within but a few years the instruments of precision have so multiplied that a well-trained consultant may be called on to know and handle as many tools as a mechanic. Their use, the exactness they teach and demand, the increasing refinement in drugs, and our ability to give them in condensed forms, all tend towards making the physician more accurate, and by overtaxing him, owing to the time all such methodical studies require, have made his work such that only the patient and the dutiful can do it justice.

Primary examinations of chest, heart, and other viscera are long and troublesome, and the first study of a case which is at all difficult, demands such time as it is increasingly hard for the busy to find. A good test for laymen in acute cases is the methodical manner in which a physician of modern training goes over the case, nor is his preciseness as to doses and medicines less worthy of note. I used to watch with interest the late Professor P. at a sick-bed. The grave and tranquil interest, the pauses for thought, the swift thoroughness of examination, and then the delay, with, “Please, nurse, let me taste that last medicine,” were full of good lessons. Any consultant could tell you what a rare quality is this union of precision and thoroughness.

Our profession has in its work enough of true difficulties, but we still owe many of our worst errors to want of absolutely complete study of our cases, and with the careless these slips are obvious enough to enable any one who is watchful to sit in judgment on the failures. The more delicate illustrations of the fine union of qualities which attain the highest triumphs are, of course, only seen and comprehended by physicians, whose general opinion on their fellows is in the end almost always a just one. There is a potent combination of alertness in observation, with a never-satisfied desire to know even the trifles of a case, which, with sagacity, gives a medical mental character as rare as it is valuable.

For such men there are no trifles, and, on entering a sick-room, they seem to absorb at a glance matters which escape others, and yet to the end are still so quietly observant and searching that they seem never to be quite content with what they have learned. Not to know surely is to them a form of unhappiness.

I remember well a consultation in a case of great obscurity, into which, many years ago, the late Dr. G. was called, after three of his colleagues had failed to reach a conclusion. It was suspected that poisoning by lead was the cause of a singular and unusual train of symptoms. Now, in such cases, a blue line around the junction of the teeth and gums is a certain sign of the presence of that poisonous metal. The patient, a man of seventy-five years, was known by his own physician to wear full sets of artificial teeth, and he so said. This having been stated no one looked at the gums. At the close of the second meeting Dr. G. turned back unsatisfied. “Let me see your gums. Ah!” he said. There was the stump of one incisor left, and around it the blue line told a tale which ended all doubt.

On another occasion, a young physician well known to me, fell by a chance into a consultation with Dr. P., the physician I have mentioned, and the late Professor P. The case was one of a young man who several times had been found at morning in a stupor. The attacks were rare, and what caused them was unknown. The young physician, much embarrassed, was civilly asked to examine the case, and did so with a thoroughness which rather wearied the two older men. When they retired to an adjoining room, he was asked, as our custom is, to give, as the youngest, the first opinion. He said, “It is a case of epilepsy. He has bitten his cheek in the fit.” Dr. P. rose without a word and went out. Returning in a few moments, he said, “You are right. I did not look far enough back. You will reach, sir, a high rank in our profession.” The case was thenceforward plain enough. These are rare illustrations of my meaning, and may suffice, with one which has a more humorous aspect. Meeting the late Professor C. D. M. on the steps of a house where, the day before, we had seen together a woman critically ill, he said to me, “Mrs. B. is better, doctor, much better.” “And how do you know that?” I returned. “Her windows are open, my dear doctor. She wants more light. She must be better, much better.” And so she was, as it proved.

A final result of the multiplication of the means of research, and the increasing difficulty in becoming expert in the use of the many and delicate instruments they require, is the growth of what we call specialties in medicine. The best of us learn to use the ophthalmoscope to look into the eye, to use the laryngoscope for the larynx, and can at need examine the urine and the blood, but the men must be rare who are as competent to use each and all of these means as persons who devote themselves to single branches of our work. Moreover, the element of time comes in, as well as the element of such constant familiar practice as makes for one man commonplace and easy what for another, who is more generally occupied, is uncommon and unfamiliar. The specialist profits by the fact that his experience becomes enormous and his work advantaged by its definite limitations. On the other hand, and nowadays especially, he is too apt to be one who, after brief hospital work of general character, or without this, takes up, as we say, the eye, ear, throat, or uterine organs. Unless he has had at some time a larger and more varied experience, or unless he is a most unusual man, he is prone at last to lose sight in his practice of the fact that eye, ear, and womb are parts of a complicated mechanism, and suffer through its general or local disorders. Hence the too common neglect of constitutional conditions, to which are often due the apparent maladies of the organs to which he devotes himself. Moreover, in certain of the organs of sense, as the eye, are frequently seen the very first signals of spinal or other maladies, and if, as too often happens, he sees in some such sign or symptom only the evidence of a local trouble, and neglects to look or reason beyond it, he may inflict on his patient the gravest penalties, by depriving him of the chance of early treatment of some serious disease, involving lifelong, or even fatal, consequences. This is a criticism on the man and his training, not on the system of specialties which has become invaluable.

A reasonable desire to seek aid from physicians of usefully limited values is another test of the good family physician. I know of men who are in the habit of saying that they dislike consultations and get little good from them. As compared to those who too commonly subject people to the expense of fresh advisers, they are the more dangerous class. Apt enough in cases of acute disease to bring into the case some one to share responsibilities which seem grave because near at hand, they continue to treat chronic cases they do not understand, because there is no crisis of pain, disability, or danger to bring them to reason.

Hitherto I have dealt most with the intellectual outfit needed for the best practice of medicine, but the criticism I have just made brings me on more delicate ground. The man who feels himself so competent that his self-esteem forbids him to seek advice when he knows and must know he has come to the end of his reasonable resources, lacks the humility which belongs to larger natures, and he, too, is a man to avoid.

Be sure that the physician cannot he a mere intellectual machine. None know that better than we. Through all ages we have insisted that he shall feel himself bound by a code of moral law, to which, on the whole, he has held without question, while creeds of more serious nature were shifting and changing. What the Greek fathers of medicine asked of him we still ask of him to-day. He must guard the secrets wrung from you on the rack of disease. He is more often than he likes a confessor, and while the priest hears, as I have once said, the sins and foibles of to-day, he is as like as not to have to hear the story of a life. He must be what About calls him, “Le tombeau des secrets,”—the grave of secrets. How can he be too prudent or too close-mouthed? Honor you must ask of him, for you must feel free to speak. Charity you should expect from him, for the heart is open to him as it is to no other, and knowledge, large knowledge, is the food which nourishes charity in the tender-hearted. In the tender-hearted? How can he be that? All his days he has walked amidst misery, anguish, bodily and mental suffering. Be careful when you come to test him by his ability to feel what you call sympathy. In its loftiest meaning this is the capacity to enter into, to realize, and hence to feel with and for you. There is a mystery about this matter. I know men who have never suffered gravely in mind or body, who yet have some dramatic power to enter into the griefs of others, and to comprehend, as if by intuition, just what others feel, and hence how best to say and do the things which heal or help. I know others, seemingly as tender, who, with sad experience to aid them, appear to lack the imaginative insight needed to make their education in sorrow of use to their fellows. There are times when all that men can give of sympathetic tenderness is of use. There are others when what you crave is but the outcome of morbid desires for some form of interested attention. You may ask too much, and every doctor knows how curiously this persistent claim for what you call sympathy does, as the nurses say, “take it out of a doctor.” The selfishness of nervous women sometimes exceeds belief in its capacity to claim pity and constancy of expressed sympathy.

In times of more serious peril and suffering, be assured that the best sympathy is that which calmly translates itself into the desire to be of practical use, and that the extreme of capacity to feel your woes would be in a measure enfeebling to energetic utility. This it is which makes a man unfit to attend those who are dear to him, or, to emphasize the illustration, to medically treat himself. He goes to extremes, loses judgment, and does too much; fears to hurt, and does too little. I once saw a very young physician burst into tears at sight of a burnt child, a charming little girl. He was practically useless for the time. And I have known men who had to abandon their profession on account of too great sensibility to suffering.

There is a measure of true sympathy which comes of kindness and insight, which has its value, and but one. Does it help you over the hard places? Does it aid you to see clearly and to bear patiently? Does it truly nourish character, and tenderly but, firmly set you where you can gain a larger view of the uses of pain and distress? That is the truest sympathy. Does it leave you feebler with mere pity? Does it accentuate pain and grief by simply dwelling on it with barren words? I leave you to say what that is. We have a certain gentle disrespect among us for the doctor who is described as, oh! so sympathetic,—the man who goes about his work with a pocket-full of banal phrases calculated to soothe and comfort the cravings of the wretched. The sick and feeble take gladly these imitation crumbs cast from the full table of the strong. But sometimes people of firm character revolt at such petty and economical charity. I heard a vigorous old Quaker lady say once, after a consultation, “Thee will do me a kindness not to ask me to see that man again. Thee knows that I don’t like my feelings poulticed.”

The question of the truthfulness of physicians is one often raised. It troubles the consultant far more than it does the family doctor, and perhaps few who are not of us understand our difficulties in this direction. Every patient has his or her standard of truth, and by it is apt to try the perplexed physician. Some of the cases which arise are curiously interesting, and perhaps nowhere better than in the physician’s office or at the bedside do we see sharply developed the peculiarities of character as to this matter of truth in many of its aspects. There is the patient who asks you to tell him the whole truth as to his case. Does he really want to know? Very often he does not. If you tell him, you sentence him. You do not shorten his life, you only add to its misery. Or perhaps his wife has written to you, “On no account tell my husband that he cannot get well. He dwells now on every sign of failing health, and you will make him wretched.” You parry his question and try to help him. If he is resolute, he returns on you with a query so positive that you must answer frankly. His wife was right. You have done him an injury. There is the other man who insists at the start that you must on no account tell him if he cannot get well. You inform some relative of his condition. But perhaps he ought to know. He contemplates some work or travel which he should not undertake. You say so, and he replies, “But you have not told me that I am seriously ill.” Such is sick human nature.

The people who really want to know if they will die of some given disease are few in number. Those who pretend they want to know are more common. Those who should not know are frequent enough, and among them one is troubled to do what seems right and to say in answer to their questions what is true.

Wise women choose their doctors and trust them. The wisest ask the fewest questions. The terrible patients are nervous women with long memories, who question much where answers are difficult, and who put together one’s answers from time to time and torment themselves and the physician with the apparent inconsistencies they detect. Another form of trouble arises with the woman whose standards are of unearthly altitude. This is the woman who thinks herself deceived if she does not know what you are giving her, or who, if without telling her you substitute an innocent drug for a hurtful one which she may have learned to take too largely, thinks that you are untruthful in the use of such a method. And you would indeed be wrong if you were of opinion that to tell her the whole truth, and invite her to break the habit by her own act, were available means. I certainly do not think that you have any right (indeed, I would not even discuss this) to take active means to make her think she is taking, say opium, when you are only giving her something which tastes like it. If she asks, you must answer. But she may not, or does not, and yet when she is well again and learns that the physician preferred to act without her knowledge because he distrusted her power to help, she is very likely, if she chance to be a certain kind of woman, to say that he has been untruthful. Happily, such cases must be rare, and yet I know of some which have been the source of much annoyance to sensitive men. Thorough trust and full understanding is the way to avoid such difficulties. A nervous woman should be made to comprehend at the outset that the physician means to have his way unhampered by the subtle distinctions with which bedridden women are apt to trouble those who most desire to help them.

I omitted above an allusion to the most unpleasant inquirers, those who are either on the verge of insanity or are victims of that singular malady, hypochrondriasis. A patient clearly staggering to and fro on the border line of sanity consults you. Here is a wilful, terrified being, eager to know the truth. “Am I becoming insane? Will I end in an asylum?” How can you answer? You see clearly, are sure the worst is coming. What shall you do with this morbid, scared, obstinate child-man? You put aside his questions, but you have here a person quite or nearly sane to-day, resolute to hear, afraid to learn the truth he dreads. I leave my reader with this patient, and my stated knowledge and my shifted responsibility. “Doctor, if I am going to be insane, I will kill myself.” Good reader, pray dispose of this case. Or take the ease of a confirmed hypochondriac. He is miserable, has a hundred ailments, watches the weather, studies the barometer, has queer delusions as to diets, clothes, and his own inability to walk. The least hint of a belief that he is not as well as he was a week ago, or even a too close examination, leaves him with a new malady, and he, too, is a sharp questioner. As a rule, he has no perceptible changes in his tissues. But if he has some real malady,—it may be a grave one on which he has built a larger sense of misery than there was need for, and the case is common enough,—how shall you answer him? It is a less difficult case than the other, and I gladly leave him also to my consultant reader’s acquired knowledge and to his personal sense of the value of truth.

Physicians are often blamed for not sooner warning a family of the fact that, in some case he and it are anxiously watching, death is inevitable. As to this the doctor has very mingled feelings. Sometimes he lacks courage, sometimes he is not sure enough to speak. A weak man fears that he will lose his patient and some quack be called in, and thus lessen the little chance yet left. Most of us can recall painful interviews in which a relative insisted on a definite opinion, which we were unable to give. As to cases where there is little or no doubt left, perfect frankness should be, and is, I think, our rule, but no one knows better, or as well as we, how numberless are the chances of escape for cases which seem to be at their worst. Hence a part of the reluctance the physician has to pronounce a verdict of fatal character.

There is another matter of moment as to cases known to be hastening to a fatal conclusion. The responsibility of withholding this knowledge from the patient is usually shifted on to the shoulders of relatives or friends. The medical adviser reports to them his opinion and leaves with them the power to act.

He is often asked if to know that death seems certain makes less the chance of recovery or shortens the lessening number of the days of life yet left. It has often fallen to my sad lot, as to that of many of my medical brothers, to have to tell a patient that he is to die. Some isolated man asks it. Some lonely hospital patient has just reasons for knowing early or late in his disease the truth as the doctor sees it. I have never been able to feel certain that in any case of acute or hopeless illness to know surely what lay before a sick man did distinctly shorten his life. I have seen many people in apparent health made ill by the shock of emotion,—by fear, grief, anger, jealousy. Diseased persons feel less, or show less in a physical way, the results we might expect to see from even the most rudely conveyed intelligence as to their probable future.

It was not my wish to enter into a long discussion of all the qualities which go to make up the ideal physician. I desired chiefly to consider his principal needs, to point out in big defence certain of his embarrassments, and to leave the reader with some sense of help towards knowing whether his adviser was such as he should be in the more important qualities which go to make the true physician. There are other and minor matters which are not without their relative gravity in his life. Some are desirable but not truly essential, and yet help or hurt him much. Whether he is gentle and well-mannered, is socially agreeable, or as to this negative, influences much the choice of the woman on whom, as a rule, comes finally the decision of who her family physician shall be. Too often she is caught by the outside show of manners, and sets aside an abler and plainer man, who has more really the true manners of the heart, yet lacks the power to make himself pleasant. Desirable it is, of course, to be what so many of the best physicians have been, refined and tactful gentlemen, and also charming companions. But a man may be a most competent, clear-headed, honest, scrupulously careful doctor, and yet be plain, ill-dressed, and uninteresting, and all this it is as well to understand. The mass of professional opinion is not so easily pleased as are individual patients. It decides pretty early in any large community, and classifies its members accurately, reversing very often the verdict of the juries of matrons, who do so much to make or mar our early fates. Soon or late it sifts the mass, knows who are the thorough, trustworthy, competent, hard-headed practitioners, who are the timid, who the too daring, who ride hobbies, and who trust too much to drugs. Soon, too, it distinguishes those on whom it can call in emergencies, and the highest class of men who have the great gift of discovery and the genius of observation.

From the public we can look for no such justice, and our professional manners forbid us to speak of our brethren, save among ourselves, with perfect freedom. As a profession, it is my sincere conviction that in our adherence to a high code of moral law, and in the general honesty with which we do our work, no other profession can be compared with ours. Our temptations, small and large, negative and positive, are many and constant, and yet I am quite sure that no like group of men affords as few illustrations of grave moral weaknesses. It is commonplace to say that our lives are one long training in charity, self-abandonment, all forms of self-restraint. The doctor will smile at my thinking it needful to even state the fact. He begins among the poor; all his life, in or out of hospitals, he keeps touch of them always. He sells that which men can neither weigh nor measure, and this sets him over all professions, save one, and far above all forms of mere business. He is bound in honor to profit by no patent, to disclose all he has learned, and to give freely and without reward of his best care to all others of his profession who may be sick. What such a life makes of a man is largely a question of original character, but in no other form of occupation is there such constant food useful to develop all that is best and noblest.

Popular opinion has been prone to decide that the physician who is anything else than this is a person not to be trusted. The old axiom is too often quoted as concerns us, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But there are enough men who have the power to be master of many trades and passed master of one. It is a question of applicative energy. Few men in early life can do much more than is needed to learn our art and its sister sciences; but, as time goes on, there are many who can add to it other pursuits which greatly benefit them in a wide sense, and enlarge and strengthen their mental powers, or pleasantly contribute to the joys of life, and so even to the growth of a man’s moral nature. The wise physician, who is fond of etching or botany, the brush, or the chisel or the pen, or who is given to science, does well to keep these things a little in the background until he is securely seated in the saddle of professional success. Then usually he may feel free to reasonably follow out his tastes, and to write, or in any other way insist on freedom to use or make public his results. If only he has the competent fund of persistent industry to draw upon, he will be not the worse, but the better, physician for such enlargement of his pursuits as I refer to, for we may feel sure that in my profession there is room for the direct or indirect use of every possible accomplishment.


Categories: English Literature

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