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 epidemic.

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 purpose.

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 himself:—

“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 encouragement.

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.