The Gold-headed Cane
By Tom Robinson, m.d.
The stick takes many forms. It is the sceptre of kings, the club of a
police constable, the baton of a field marshal. The mace is but a stick of
office, being ornamental and merely symbolical.
In history we may go back to the pilgrim’s staff, which was four feet
long, and hollow at the top to carry away relics from the Holy Land. It
was also used to carry contraband goods, such as seeds, or silk-worms’
eggs, which the Chinese, Turks, or Greeks forbade to be exported. It is
occasionally used for eluding the customs now. Some people smuggle
diamonds into the United States in that way.
Prometheus’ reed, or marthex, in which he conveyed fire to “wretched
mortals,” as Aeschylus tells us, is a well-known fable.
An enormous amount of interest centres around the walking stick, and there
are few families in which we do not find an old stick handed down
generation after generation. Such an inheritance was at one time a common
possession of those who belonged to the medical profession.
The College of Physicians possesses at the present time the gold cane
which Radcliffe, Mead, Askew, Pitcairn, and Baillie successively carried
about with them, and which Mrs. Baillie presented to that learned body.
The drawing here given is a representation of this cane, and it will be
seen that it has not a gold knob, but consists of an engraved handle or
crook. It is, I think, quite clear that the custom which the doctors of
the last century always followed in carrying their stick about with them,
even to the bed-side, was due entirely to the fact that the handle of the
cane could be, and was, filled with strong smelling disinfectants, such as
rosemary and camphor. The doctor held this against his nose obviously for
two reasons. One, to destroy any poison which might be floating about in
the air but chiefly to prevent him smelling unpleasant odours. This stick
was as long as a footman’s, smooth and varnished.
A belief in the protective power of camphor and other pleasant-smelling
herbs is still in existence, and we know quite a number of individuals who
carry about with them bags of camphor during the prevalence of an
Before Howard exposed the deadly sanitary state of the prisons of this
country, it was the custom to sprinkle aromatic herbs before the
prisoners, so powerful was the noxious effluvium which exhaled from their
filthy bodies. The bouquet which the chaplain always carried when
accompanying a prisoner to Tyburn, was used for the same defensive
The stick of the physician’s cane was probably a relic of the legerdemain
of the healer, who in superstitious times worked upon the ignorance of the
credulous. The modern conjuror always uses a wand in his entertainment.
These baubles die hard, because there is a strong conservative instinct in
the race which clings with tremendous tenacity to anything which has the
sanction of antiquity.
The barber’s pole is still seen even in London, and is striped blue and
white, emblems of the phlebotomist, and symbolical of the blue venous
blood, which was so ungrudgingly given by the sufferers from almost all
maladies. The white stripe represented the bandage used to bind up the
wound on the arm.
The practice of the bleeders continued in fashion in England until the
beginning of this century. John Coutsley Lettsom, who possessed high
literary attainments, and who was President of the Philosophical Society
of London, and who entertained at his house at Grove Hill, Camberwell,
many of the most distinguished men of his time, including Boswell and Dr.
Johnson, and whose writings shew he was an enlightened physician, was bold
in his treatment of disease, and a heroic bleeder. He used to say of
“When patients sick to me apply,
I physics, bleeds, and sweats ’em
Then if they choose to die,
What’s that to me—I lets ’em.”
The wig also constituted an essential part of the dress of the older
physicians. It was a three tailed one, and this with silk stockings,
clothes well trimmed, velvet coat with stiff skirts, large cuffs and
buckled shoes, made quite an imposing show, and when they rode in their
gilt carriages with two running footmen, as was the custom, no one would
be better recognised. It is interesting to contrast the dress and mode of
practice of the modern physician with those who built up the honourable
calling of medicine. It is so easy to laugh at those who practised the art
of medicine before modern scientific investigation had laid naked so many
of the secrets of physiology, pathology, and vital chemistry. Slowly but
surely as the true nature and progress of disease has become known, so
have all the adventitious and unnecessary surroundings of dress
disappeared, and now we may meet the most eminent of our doctors, clad in
the same garments as a man on Change. All this was inevitable, but running
through the whole history of medicine is a magnificent desire on the part
of those who have made a mark, and of all its humbler followers to “go
about doing good.” The difficulties are enormous, the labour is colossal,
but there could be no convictions were there no perplexities. Credulity is
the disease of a feeble intellect. Accepting all things and understanding
nothing, kills a man’s intellect and checks all scientific investigation.
The physician has to knock at the temple of the human frame, and patiently
pick up the knowledge which nature always gives to those who love her
best. But the investigator must approach his subject with humility, and
with the recognition that there is a limit to the human intellect, and
that behind and above this big round world is a supreme being, that around
the intellect is the atmosphere of spiritual convictions from which our
highest and best impulses spring, that the universe not only embraces
material phenomena, but it also includes the sublime and the moral
attributes, which no man has, or ever will, weigh in the physical balance
or distil from a retort.
The union of Intellect and Piety will grow stronger as the world grows
older. When men began to think, they began to doubt, but when men have
thought more deeply they will cease to doubt.
An idea is in the air that the study of science has a tendency to make men
sceptical. This is an error. For surely the study of Nature in any of its
manifold aspects has a direct tendency to lead us into the inscrutable.
Amongst those who demonstrate the ennobling influence of science let us
only name Boyle, Bacon, Kepler, and Newton. If we would select a few names
from the number of medical celebrities of the past who have felt this
elevating influence, the following will readily occur to us, Linacre,
Sydenham, Brodie, Astley Cooper, Graves Watson, and Abernethy. The latter,
who is chiefly remembered as a coiner of quaint sayings and personal
originality, had, notwithstanding his biting wit, a deep sense of the
nobility and the sacredness of his calling, as the following extract from
a lecture which he delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons will prove.
He says:—“When we examine our bodies we see an assemblance of organs
formed of what we call matter, but when we examine our minds, we feel that
there is something sensitive and intelligible which inhabits our bodies.
We naturally believe in the existence of a first cause. We feel our own
free agency. We distinguish right and wrong. We feel as if we were
responsible for our conduct, and the belief in a future state seems
indigenous to the mind of man.”
The noiseless tread of time will cause many doctors whose names are now
household words to be forgotten, but we may rest assured that the wreath
of memory will cluster round the brows of these grand, noble workers in
the field of medicine who have shown by their daily life that they never
flinched from the arduous duties, aye and the dangers of their profession,
but steadfastly plodded on. Originality, integrity, and honesty are
attributes which grace the life of any man, and although the history of
medicine claims no monopoly of these virtues, for they serve all men
alike, yet they are the handmaids of greatness; without them no human
being will ever win that true success which enables us to look back upon
such lives and say, “Here are examples which show us the possibilities of
the race.” Doctors ought to be great burden lifters. Their mission is to
carry into the chamber of disease—and even of death itself—that calm
courage, that buoyant hope, which has around it a halo of sympathy and of
The public are loyal to the profession of medicine, and seldom do we hear
of any members of that calling who abuse their high privileges. Their work
is an absorbing work; it says to a man:—“You have placed in your hands
the lives of the human race. You are the true soldier whose business it
is to give life and health and happiness to those with whom you come in
contact. You must not lean upon the baubles of your calling, so as to
inspire confidence, but you must night and day let the one abiding thought
be concentrated upon the good of humanity,” and there is no field of
professional experience which has given us so many men who have as nobly
done their duty as the doctors of the past and of the present day. We seem
to be on the threshold of a new era in the treatment of disease, and
already do we find an increase in the average lives of the race. No one
need despair of the future in that direction; indiscretion and ignorance
kill more human beings than plague, pestilence, or famine. The public must
help to tear away the veil which hides the Truth, by not worshipping at
the foot of Quackery, Chicanery, or Superstition.
The medical profession has so far escaped the pernicious tendency of
modern thought, which tendency is to hamper every institution. This is a
noteworthy fact; our hospitals, medical schools, College of Physicians,
and College of Surgeons are not cramped and hindered by legislative
interference; but unostentatiously, silently, and with a never-failing
sense of their responsibilities, do they educate and pass through their
gates the doctors of the future—and no man dare point his finger at any
one of these, and say he does not do his duty.