Famous Literary Doctors

By Cuming Walters

Medical men have not so commonly made literature an extra pursuit, or adopted it as a serious calling, as have the members of the other liberal professions. It is quite expected that a clergyman should write poems, philosophical essays, and perhaps even a novel with a purpose; and it is usual to recruit the ranks of critics extensively from the law, and to trust to briefless barristers for a continuous supply of romances. No detail is more frequently discovered in the biographies of eminent authors than that they were called to the Bar, and either never practised or forsook practising in order to engage in literary labours. Indeed, it might almost seem that failure in law was the most important step towards success in authorship. No such rule applies, however, to medical men, and no such comment would be justified in their case. Not only do we find the writing of books—otherwise than text-books and technical treatises—rarer with them, but it curiously happens that in most instances it has been the successful practitioner, not the man walking the hospitals or waiting for calls, who has turned author. And we shall find that these medico-literati (if I may coin the phrase) have often been among the most hard-working in their profession, and the wonder is that they were able to enter upon a second pursuit and to follow it with so much zeal. For, in most of the examples I shall advance, literature was more than a pastime with these men who indulged in it. It was chosen by some for its lucrativeness, and by the majority for its capacity to enhance their reputation or to bring them enduring fame. This much may be safely said, that the names of many excellent doctors would have faded from public remembrance ere this, and would have passed away with the generation to which they belonged, had not literature given them lasting luminance. In not a few instances the fact is already forgotten or wholly ignored that certain successful writers once wrote “M.D.” after their names. Who cares that the author of that classic “Religio Medici” took his degrees at Leyden and at Oxford, and dispensed medicine to the end of his life? Who cares that the author of “The Borough,” “Tales in Verse,” and “The Parish Register,” was apprenticed to a surgeon? Who cares that the writer of such dramas as “Virginius,” “William Tell,” and “The Hunchback,” was trained for a physician? Who cares that the author of “Roderick Random,” “Peregrine Pickle,” and “The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker” was a surgeon’s assistant and acted as surgeon’s mate in the unfortunate Carthagena expedition, before trying (unsuccessfully) to obtain a practice in London? And, above all, who cares that the author of “The Deserted Village” and “The Vicar of Wakefield” studied physic in Edinburgh and on the Continent, and, as Boswell was informed, “was enabled to pursue his travels on foot, partly by demanding at Universities to enter the lists as a disputant, by which, according to the custom of many of them, he was entitled to the premium of a crown, when luckily for him his challenge was not accepted?” Such are a few of the examples which immediately occur to the mind when the whole subject is contemplated.

It would be impossible in the compass of a short article to deal systematically and comprehensively with doctors who became authors, or to make out a complete list of their names with an account of the works which entitled them to the designation. Any facts now adduced must be considered arbitrary and capricious, so far as the choice of them is concerned; and sequence is so little attempted that the reader will pardon, I trust, a possible leap from Galen to Goldsmith, from Sir Thomas Browne to Tobias Smollett, and from Sir John Blackmore to Conan Doyle. I put aside those members of the profession who have simply written on professional subjects. Their name is legion, but in the great majority of cases such work as this would not strictly justify their inclusion among the literati. And, on the other hand, we cannot find a place in the category for such men as Gœthe or Sainte-Beuve, for though both studied medicine, it seems to have been purely with a view to the extension of their knowledge and not with any more practical or material object. Sainte-Beuve, it is true, for a short time in his youth entertained some thought of adopting the profession; but Gœthe only dipped into the subject with the same spirit that he dipped into experimental chemistry and astrology.

Let us, then, refer to a few types certain of instant recognition. The most notable of modern instances is Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a specialist in his profession, a hard-working physician, and the author of valuable treatises on medical art, who nevertheless occupied the position of being among the four chief poets whom America has produced, and one of the most versatile of the littérateurs of the century. He went to the Paris Medical Schools shortly after he had graduated at Harvard; he practised as a physician at Boston; and for nearly forty years he was Professor of Physiology. Yet he had time to write the most delightful and original of philosophical essays, to publish novels of which at least one—“Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny”—will rank as a classic; to deliver orations and after-dinner speeches in sparkling verse, and to write exquisite poems in rich and felicitous language on a wonderful variety of themes, the complete collection of which makes a very substantial volume. In all his work Dr. Holmes showed himself to be the profound student of nature and of humanity with many varying interests; yet we can often trace the hand of the physician in the work of the essayist and poet. His novels were special studies which only the ardent physiologist and metaphysician would have cared to discuss, or, at all events, would have discussed so well. Both “Elsie Venner” and “The Guardian Angel” deal with the occult problems of heredity, and those problems are treated with the power of the specialist in certain branches of science. Still more strongly is the character of the medical man displayed in a number of the poems, some by reason of their subject, and some by the figures and imagery they contain. The well-known “Stethoscope Song” will immediately suggest itself in illustration. But, for purposes of quotation, I prefer a less popular poem of rare beauty, which more strikingly manifests the writer’s power of transmuting the hard dry facts of science into light and gleaming poetry. I refer to what he called at first “The Anatomist’s Hymn,” but afterwards “The Living Temple.” It is one of the interpolated poems in the “Autocrat” series of papers, and to my thinking invests the human body and its physical functions with unimagined charms.

Take, for instance, this poetic exposition of our respiration, the scientific correctness and exactness of which need no explanation to readers of this volume:—

“The smooth, soft air with pulse-like waves
Flows murmuring through its hidden caves,
Whose streams of brightening purple rush
Fired with a new and livelier blush,
While all their burden of decay
The ebbing current steals away,
And red with Nature’s flame they start
From the warm fountains of the heart.

No rest that throbbing slave may ask,
For ever quivering o’er his task,
While far and wide a crimson jet
Leaps forth to fill the woven net
Which in unnumbered crossing tides
The flood of burning life divides,
Then kindling each decaying part
Creeps back to find the throbbing heart.

But warmed with that unchanging flame
Behold the outward moving frame,
Its living marbles jointed strong
With glistening band and silvery thong,
And linked to reason’s guiding reins
By myriad rings in trembling chains,
Each graven with the threaded zone
Which claims it as the master’s own.”

There is an almost irresistible temptation to linger over Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ books, so intensely interesting is his personality and so fascinating is his work. But several other eminent poets of the profession demand attention. To Crabbe’s connection with surgery I have already incidentally referred, and inasmuch as he early abandoned the calling for the ministry, little need be said except that his youthful experience may have aided him in writing a scathing denunciation of the Quack, who believed wholly in the potence of “oxymel of squills,” and of the Parish Doctor, who “first insults the victim whom he kills.” The poet was a severe castigator, and was never less forbearing with the lash than when these impostors of his day were under his hand for flagellation. In Mark Akenside we come to a better specimen of the class which we are considering. At the age of twenty he went to Leyden, and three years later became, (as Dr. Johnson writes) “a doctor of physick, having, according to the custom of the Dutch Universities, published a thesis.” In the same year he published “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” his greatest work. This was followed by a collection of odes, but he still sought a livelihood as a physician. Little success attended him, however, and Dr. Johnson records that Akenside was known as a poet better than as a doctor, and would have been reduced to great exigencies but for the generosity of an ardent friend. “Thus supported, he gradually advanced in medical reputation, but never attained any great extent of practice, or eminence of popularity. A physician in a great city,” his biographer continues musingly, “seems to be the mere play-thing of Fortune; his degree of reputation is, for the most part, totally casual; they that employ him, know not his excellence; they that reject him, know not his deficiency.” Yet it was otherwise with Sir Samuel Garth, doctor and poet, of whom Johnson himself records that “by his conversation and accomplishments he obtained a very extensive practice.” His principal poem was “The Dispensary,” relating to a controversy of the time between the College of Physicians, who desired to give gratuitous advice to the poor, and the Apothecaries, who wished to keep up the high price of medicine. Garth was “on the side of charity against the intrigues of interest, and of regular learning against licentious usurpation of medical authority,” as Johnson put it; and he sprang into favour, was eventually knighted, and became physician-general to the army. His last literary work, and his worst, was a crude but ostentatious preface to a translation of Ovid. As a matter of fact his writing was invariably mediocre, and Pope, in calling attention to the fact that the “Dispensary” poem had been corrected in every edition, unkindly remarked that “every change was an improvement.” John Phillips, who may be ranked among the physicians, though it is doubtful whether he practised, enjoyed a better fate as a man of letters than did either Akenside or Garth. He sprang into sudden popularity by the publication of a whimsical and clever medley called “The Silver Shilling,” and this he followed up by a sort of official commemoration of the victory of Blenheim. His greatest achievement was a poem in two books on “Cider,” and he was meditating an epic on “The Last Day” when he died, at the early age of thirty-three. One curious fact about his writings, small as it is, is worthy of mention. He sang the praises of tobacco in every poem he wrote, except that on Blenheim.

Dr. Johnson did not rate Phillips very highly; he said that what study could confer he obtained, but that “natural deficience cannot be supplied.” The sturdy doctor, however, did his utmost to rehabilitate the damaged reputation of Blackmore, whom we may regard as the most remarkable of all the compounds of physician-poets with whom we can become acquainted. Blackmore obtained an undeserved success, which was followed by unmerited ridicule, and Johnson, who hated every form of injustice, constituted himself his champion. For the truth about Blackmore we must seek the medium between the extremes of Johnson’s praise and of the censure of his enemies—the “malignity of contemporary wits,” as Boswell termed it. When all is said and done the fact remains that Blackmore was a man of uncommon character, and a prodigious worker. His first work, a heroic poem in ten books, on Prince Arthur, was written, he related, by “such catches and starts, and in such occasional uncertain hours as his profession afforded, and for the greatest part in coffee-houses, or in passing up and down the streets.” This work passed through several editions with rapidity, and two extra books were added to it. The King knighted him and gave him other advances, but the critics furiously assailed him, and his name became a by-word for all that was heavy and ridiculous in poetry. Notwithstanding this he persevered, and published successively a “Paraphrase on the Book of Job,” a “Satire on Wit,” “Elijah,”—an epic poem in ten books—“Creation, a Philosophical Poem,” “Advice to Poets how to celebrate the Duke of Marlborough,” “The Nature of Man,” “Redemption,” “A New Version of the Psalms,” “Alfred”—an epic in twelve books—“A History of the Conspiracy against King William,” and a host of others which his perverted reason or fantastic fancy suggested. Never, perhaps, was known such a voluminous author, or one so erratic in his system. What with his long heroic poems, his treatises on smallpox and other diseases, his theological controversies, his “Advices” to painters, poets, and weavers, and his prose contributions to periodical publications, “England’s Arch-Poet” (as Swift described him) could never have idled away an hour. Of all that he wrote, a few passages from his “Arthur” and “Creation” are alone remembered, and but for Johnson’s good-natured attempt to save him from oblivion, his name would only have lived in the satires of his remorseless critics. One saying of Blackmore’s only is worth noting here. He had laid himself open to the imputation of despising learning, and Dr. Johnson himself thought him a shallow ill-read man. But Blackmore said:—“I only undervalued false or superficial learning, that signifies nothing for the service of mankind; as to physic I expressly affirmed that learning must be joined with native genius to make a physician of the first rank; but if those talents are separated, I asserted, and do still insist, that a man of native sagacity and diligence will prove a more able and useful practiser than a heavy notional scholar encumbered with a heap of confused ideas.”

One or two other doctors who in their time enjoyed a reputation as writers, but whose fame was transient, or, at least, is insecure, call for very brief notice before we pass on to a few of greater importance. Sir John Hill, M.D., an eighteenth century physician, was a fairly extensive litterateur, and in addition to producing treatises on botany, medicine, natural history, and philosophy, wrote half a dozen novels, and several dramas. His chef d’œuvre was “The Vegetable System,” a work of such magnitude that it ran to twenty-six volumes, a copy of which was presented to the King of Sweden, and procured for the author the distinction of being included in the Order of the Polar Star. Dr. William Fullarton Cumming, a son of Burns’ “Bonnie Leslie,” was compelled to travel in mild climates for his health, and as a result wrote “The Notes of a Wanderer,” a work abounding in poetic descriptions of the charming scenery of the East. He tells us that the real pleasure of travelling is not to boast of how many lions one may have slain in a single day, but to saunter about without an object, to inhale the moral atmosphere of places visited, to enter bazaars, not to buy, but to catch the hundred peculiarities of a new people, to stray hither and thither watching the work and the recreations of other races. John Chalmers, M.D. (not to be confused with the great divine, Dr. Thomas Chalmers), also deserves to be noted as a very graceful writer of romantic stories; and Sir Henry Thompson, under the name of “Pen Oliver,” produced some years ago a strange little volume which enjoyed a season’s success—“Charley Kingston’s Aunt.”

That most diffident and most delightful of authors, Dr. John Brown, who gave us the memorable “Rab and his Friends,” was in practice at Edinburgh. As long as lovers of the animal creation are to be found, the story of Rab and of Marjorie will be read; and these sketches of brutes whom he almost humanised will probably outlive the genial doctor’s more ambitious “Horæ Subsecivæ” and “John Leech and other Papers.” Of a very different nature was the author of “Ten Thousand a Year,” Dr. Samuel Warren, physician, lawyer, politician, novelist, and office-seeker. Tittlebat Titmouse is not much studied now, for the type is out-of-date, and the society of which the novel treats, the abuses prevalent, the general corruption which prevailed in public life, were exposures intended for a past generation. Yet there are passages in the work which should save it from absolute neglect, and it has for over half a century kept its author’s name alive. This is more than his “Passages from the Diary of a late Physician” could have done, or those dozen other works with the bare titles of which the present reading public is scarcely acquainted. John Abercrombie, the chief consulting physician in Scotland during the last century, sought and achieved literary fame with two volumes on “The Intellectual Powers,” and “The Moral Feelings.” They enjoyed a popularity scarcely commensurate with their actual merits.

David Macbeth Moir, who faithfully performed the arduous duties of a medical practitioner in Edinburgh, and whose life was almost wholly devoted to the service of his fellows, was the famous “Delta” of Blackwood’s Magazine. His poems, some four hundred of which he contributed to “Maga.” alone, are out of fashion now, though their delightful vein of reflectiveness and their charm of expression should preserve them from absolute neglect. The heavy labours of his profession did not seem to check his literary productiveness. His poems fill two large volumes; his prose works are by no means meagre or unimportant, and his “Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the past Half-century,” is a standard work on the poetry of his period. Medical treatises, too, came from his pen; and his “Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor,” is one of the most agreeable of genuine Scotch sketches. His biographer correctly summed up the merits of the worthy doctor as a literary worker in the words “Good sound sense, a simple healthy feeling, excited and exalted though these may be, never fail him. He draws from nature, and from himself direct.” Quiet humour and simple pathos, a love of humanity, deep reverential feeling, and originality of thought—all these are found in “Delta’s” writings, and serve, with his own admirable nature, to keep his memory green.

Of Dr. Conan Doyle, the most conspicuous instance of the hour of the doctor turned author, no detailed notice is requisite, as the main facts of his career are sufficiently well known, and his literary work promises to bring him both fame and fortune. Undoubtedly he exemplifies the fact that the medical hand can scarcely be concealed when it takes to the pen, for his novels and stories abound in allusions which only his study, training, and experience as a doctor could suggest. His reading and observation largely provide the technique of his romances. Something of the same could be said of Smollett’s work, though the medical knowledge of the author was often turned to less agreeable account. In fact, most of Smollet’s references on this score were the reverse of delectable, and I refrain from a more precise examination of them. The unexpected use to which Mr. R. D. Blackmore has turned his knowledge of medicine—for he studied medicine as well as law seriously in his youth—in several of his novels, notably in the last, “Perlycross,” has excited much interest and attention among the profession. So marked is this that I cannot refrain quoting from a singularly interesting criticism penned by a leading physician in the Midlands. “The medical incidents in ‘Perlycross,’” he says, “are pourtrayed with an accuracy which shows an intimate knowledge of the profession and its members.... No doubt the opinions expressed by one learned doctor were those of the time represented in the story, though they could hardly be received with justice in the present day. Speaking of the illness of Sir Thomas Waldron, he says (p. 18):—‘At present such a case could be dealt with best in Paris, although we have young men rising now who will make it otherwise before very long.’ The key to this difficulty is found later on (p. 159) where the technical word ‘introsusception’ is mentioned as the disease or condition from which the patient suffered. At the time spoken of Parisian surgeons, headed by the eminent Dupuytren, excelled in the art of surgery; at the present time such a case could be treated as well by any hospital surgeon in England as in the metropolis of France.... The book contains an admirably-described case of catalepsy, which is equally well explained. The cure of the attack is described with consummate skill and power. The keystone of the whole position of medical knowledge is contained in a few words towards its close. In these days of rapid transition from one excitement to another it would be well to take the lesson to heart, and to remember what the author speaks of as two fine things—‘If you wish to be sure of anything see it with your own good eyes,’ and the second, ‘Never scamp your work.’ How these sayings may be applied in the practice of the profession may with profit be learned from a perusal of the pages of ‘Perlycross.’” Perhaps I am going too far in claiming Mr. Blackmore as a medical man who has taken to literature, but the excuse of his early training, combined with this curious result of it manifested in his writing, proves irresistible.

Not to stray, however, but to get our feet once more upon solid ground, we may refer to a classic example, with which this article, had it been aught else but discursive, should have begun. Galen, the Greek physician, must be counted among the first and most famous of his class who have written literary works. He was so voluminous a writer on philosophical subjects that scores of books on logic and ethics have been fathered upon him without much question arising as to the unlikelihood of his being the author of so many. As it is he is credited with eighty-three treatises, the genuineness of which is not disputed; there are nineteen suspected to bear his name unjustly, forty-five are proved to be spurious, and then there remain a further fifteen fragments and fifteen commentaries on Hippocrates, which may be accepted as his in part or whole. He made himself master of the medical, physiological, and scientific knowledge of his time. He was born in 130 A.D., and died in 201, and left a record of that period. In addition to preparing this massive work, he seems to have found time to devote himself to various branches of philosophy with such success that later writers were well pleased to trade with the talisman of his name. Were it worth while to go back to antiquity, and to the history of foreign nations for further examples of physicians whose writings were not confined to expositions of the medical system, Averrhoes, most famous of Arabian philosophers, and physician to the calif, a master of the twelfth century, would occupy a prominent position. But it is more to our purpose to draw attention to the remarkable career, and one that deserves to be held in remembrance, of Arthur Johnston, physician to King Charles the First. In the same year that he graduated at the university of Padua (1610) he was “laureated poet at Paris, and that most deservedly,” as Sir Thomas Urquhart recorded. He was then only three-and-twenty years of age, and the prospect of many years being before him, he indulged in extensive travel, and visited in turn most of the principal foreign seats of learning. His journeying over, he settled in France and became equally well known as a physician and as a writer of excellent Latin verse. A courteous act, characteristic of the time, secured him the favour and patronage of the English royal family, for in 1645 he published an elegy on James I., and followed this up by dedicating a Latin rendering of the Song of Solomon to King Charles. Other specimens of his rare culture and his poetical powers were forthcoming, and he achieved a European reputation. His Latin translation of the Psalms is held to be unexcelled by any other, unless it be Buchanan’s, and the fact that his translation is still in use sufficiently attests its excellence and value. He died suddenly in 1641, while on a visit to Oxford, and in the centuries which have succeeded he has not been displaced in the front rank of refined and deeply versed Latin scholars and poets.

It would be a matter of considerable difficulty to make a complete list of literary doctors, but enough has perhaps been written to show that they are no small band so far as numbers go, and that their influence in the world of books has been very considerable and distinguished. We owe to them many great works of enduring repute, of value to the student, of perpetual entertainment to the general reader. When, too, we consider the willingness and the zeal with which the writing members of the medical profession have imparted their knowledge, we are led to believe that they accepted as their motto the noble utterance of Sir Thomas Browne, the chief of literary doctors:—“To be reserved and caitiff in goodness is the sordidest piece of covetousness, and more contemptible than pecuniary Avarice. To this (as calling myself a Scholar) I am obliged by the duty of my condition: I make not therefore my head a grave, but a treasure of knowledge; I intend no Monopoly, but a community, in learning; I study not for my own sake only, but for theirs that study not for themselves. I envy no man that knows more than myself, but pity them that know less. I instruct no man as an exercise of my knowledge, or with an intent rather to nourish and keep it alive in mine own head than beget and propagate it in his; and in the midst of all my endeavours there is but one thought that dejects me, that my acquired parts must perish with myself, nor can be Legacied among my honoured Friends.”