XXVIII

Doctors And imagination⁠—​Firing a joke out of a cannon⁠—​The Paris eye water⁠—​Majendie on medical knowledge⁠—​Old sands of life.

Medical humbugs constitute a very critical subject indeed, because I shall be almost certain to offend some of three parties concerned, namely; physicians, quacks, and patients. But it will never do to neglect so important a division of my whole theme as this.

To begin with, it is necessary to suggest, in the most delicate manner in the world, that there is a small infusion of humbug among the very best of the regular practitioners. These gentlemen, for whose learning, kindheartedness, self-devotion, and skill I entertain a profound respect, make use of what I may call the gaseous element of their practice, not for the lucre of gain, but in order to enlist the imaginations of their patients in aid of nature and great remedies.

The stories are infinite in number, which illustrate the force of imagination, ranging through all the grades of mental action, from the lofty visions of good men who dream of seeing heaven opened to them, and all its ineffable glories and delights, down to the low comedy conceit of the fellow who put a smoked herring into the tail of his coat and imagined himself a mermaid.

Probably, however, imagination displays its real power more wonderfully in the operations of the mind on the body that holds it, than anywhere else. It is true that there are some people even so utterly without imagination that they cannot take a joke; such as that grave man of Scotland who was at last plainly told by a funny friend quite out of patience, “Why, you wouldn’t take a joke if it were fired at you out of a cannon!”

“Sir,” replied the Scot, with sound reasoning and grave thought, “Sir, you are absurd. You cannot fire a joke out of a cannon!”

But to return: It is certainly the case that frequently “the doctor” takes great care not to let the patient know what is the matter, and even not to let him know what he is swallowing. This is because a good many people, if at a critical point of disease, may be made to turn toward health if made to believe that they are doing so, but would be frightened, in the literal sense of the words, to death, if told what a dangerous state they are in.

One sort of regular practice humbug is rendered necessary by the demands of the patients. This is giving good big doses of something with a horrid smell and taste. There are plenty of people who don’t believe the doctor does anything to earn his money, if he does not pour down some dirty brown or black stuff very nasty in flavor. Some, still more exacting, wish for that sort of testimony which depends on internal convulsions, and will not be satisfied unless they suffer torments and expel stuff enough to quiet the inside of Mount Vesuvius or Popocatepetl.

“He’s a good doctor,” was the verdict of one of this class of leather-boweled fellows⁠—“he’ll work your innards for you!”

It is a milder form of this same method to give what the learned faculty term a placebo. This is a thing in the outward form of medicine, but quite harmless in itself. Such is a bread-pill, for instance; or a draught of colored water, with a little disagreeable taste in it. These will often keep the patient’s imagination headed in the right direction, while good old Dame Nature is quietly mending up the damages in “the soul’s dark cottage.”

One might almost fancy that, in proportion as the physician is more skillful, by so much he gives less medicine, and relies more on imagination, nature, and, above all, regimen and nursing. Here is a story in point. There was an old gentleman in Paris, who sold a famous eye-water, and made much gain thereby. He died, however, one fine day, and unfortunately forgot to leave the recipe on record. “His disconsolate widow continued the business at the old stand,” however⁠—to quote another characteristic French anecdote⁠—and being a woman of ready and decisive mind, she very quietly filled the vials with water from the river Seine, and lived respectably on the proceeds, finding, to her great relief, that the eye-water was just as good as ever. At last however, she found herself about to die, and under the stings of an accusing conscience she confessed her trick to her physician, an eminent member of the profession. “Be entirely easy, Madam,” said the wise man; “don’t be troubled at all. You are the most innocent physician in the world; you have done nobody any harm.”

It is an old and illiberal joke to compare medicine to war, on the ground that the votaries of both seek to destroy life. It is, however, not far from the truth to say that they are alike in this; that they are both preeminently liable to mistakes, and that in both he is most successful who makes the fewest.

How can it be otherwise, until we know more than we do at present, of the great mysteries of life and death? It seems risky enough to permit the wisest and most experienced physician to touch those springs of life which God only understands. And it is enough to make the most stupid stare, to see how people will let the most disgusting quack jangle their very heartstrings with his poisonous messes, about as soon as if he were the best doctor in the world. A true physician, indeed, does not hasten to drug. The great French surgeon, Majendie, is even said to have commenced his official course of lectures on one occasion by coolly saying to his students: “Gentlemen, the curing of disease is a subject that physicians know nothing about.” This was doubtless an extreme way of putting the case. Yet it was in a certain sense exactly true. There is one of the geysers in Iceland, into which visitors throw pebbles or turfs, with the invariable result of causing the disgusted geyser in a few minutes to vomit the dose out again, along with a great quantity of hot water, steam, and stuff. Now the doctor does know that some of his doses are pretty sure to work, as the traveler knows that his dose will work on the geyser. It is only the exact how and why that is not understood.

But however mysterious is nature, however ignorant the doctor, however imperfect the present state of physical science, the patronage and the success of quacks and quackeries are infinitely more wonderful than those of honest and laborious men of science and their careful experiments.

I have come about to the end of my tether for this time; and quackery is something too monstrous in dimensions as well as character to be dealt with in a paragraph. But I may with propriety put one quack at the tail of this letter; it is but just that he should let decent people go before him. I mean “Old Sands of Life.” Everybody has seen his advertisement, beginning “A retired Physician whose sands of life have nearly run out,” etc. And everybody⁠—almost⁠—knows how kind the fellow is in sending gratis his recipe. All that is necessary is (as you find out when you get the recipe) to buy at a high price from him one ingredient which (he says) you can get nowhere else. This swindling scamp is in fact a smart brisk fellow of about thirty-five years of age, notwithstanding the length of time during which⁠—to use a funny phrase which somebody got up for him⁠—he has been “afflicted with a loose tailboard to his mortal sand-cart.” Some benevolent friend was so much distressed about the feebleness of “Old Sands of Life” as to send him one day a large parcel by express, marked “C.O.D.,” and costing quite a figure. “Old Sands” paid, and opening the parcel, found half a bushel of excellent sand.