Doctors And Imagination

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 o
the regular practitioners. These gentlemen, for whose learning,

kind-heartedness, 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


"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


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


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

tail-board 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.