Category Archives: doctor-writers

Advice for aspiring doctor-writers

Every so often a junior doctor comes to Dalrymple and confesses that he or she is afflicted with literary ambition. He gives them three pieces of advice:

  1. Continue in the hospital for a few more years, because human nature is concentrated and distilled there as if for the express purpose of training writers.
  2. On no account consort with academics of the humanities departments of any university, for to do so is the primrose path to stylistic perdition.
  3. Read a great deal.

The doctor-writers

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-41-01There has been, Dalrymple notes (from 1:07:09),

a very large number of doctor-writers. This is not surprising: medicine is good training for a writer. The doctor is involved in the most intimate details of a patient’s life, but at the same time, he has a kind of objectivity; he is both involved and observing. This is a good combination if you want to write.

Dalrymple himself has

always wanted to write. I had this desire from an early age.

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-42-22

Bernard Mandeville

Bernard Mandeville

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-46-34screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-48-30screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-49-33screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-52-59screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-54-29screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-22-56-24screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-00-17screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-02-32screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-03-59screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-06-31screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-08-12screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-09-58

Carlo Levi

Carlo Levi

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Peter Mark Roget

Peter Mark Roget

Demise of the cultivated doctor

А. П. Чехов

А. П. Чехов

If no one, writes Dalrymple, is broadly educated or cultivated,

that is the end of broad education and cultivation itself. We will be reduced to a society of technocrats, each absorbed in his own narrow specialism.

It is not, he says, a society

to which I look forward. Apart from anything else, some among us will be specialists in the exercise of power, against whom the rest of us will be defenceless.

Why bloodletting is coming back into usage

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 21.01.21Mouldering on the shelves of many a secondhand bookshop, writes Dalrymple,

without much hope of ever being bought and even less of being read, are the essayistic reflections of doctors near or just after retirement.

These efforts

were a literary genre of the ’20s and ’30s, and they are generally a summary of what life taught their authors.

Of Christopher Howard, who published his After Consulting Hours in 1930, Dalrymple knows nothing,

except that I deduce from his qualifications* and the fact that his preface was written from Harley Street that he was a practitioner in that great street.

His book

was addressed to his fellow practitioners rather than to the general public, for it was published by William Heinemann Medical Books and contains quite a lot of technical advice.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 07.48.56Indeed, Howard appears to have practised from 104 Harley Street. He was to go on to publish notably Bedside Manners and Paris Prelude (both 1932) and Physic and Fancy (1937; ‘Medical observations and other observations on gardens, syphilis, etc.‘)

The After Consulting Hours blurb reads:

A medical man’s reflections after consulting hours are over on his patients, their various idiosyncrasies, the latest ideas in medical science, including such different subjects as high blood pressure, endocrine glands, vitamins, ultra violet treatment, hay fever, etc. The book is very pleasantly written and is of interest to both the layman and the doctor.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 20.40.51

‘He reveals, too, how he thinks he might be tempted to consider suicide while in Cheshire, though it would never occur to him in Suffolk . . . This is a pleasant little book revealing an attractive personality.’ (from a review in the BMJ of After Consulting Hours in the year of its publication)

The book’s opening sentence reads:

The taking of blood pressure and the interpretation of the figures of the sphygmomanometer to the patient has become a craze which the profession as a whole would do well to endeavour to counteract.

The problem is that

there is a temptation for the busy doctor to take a blood pressure reading and, from the first definite indication of heightened pressure that he obtains, to think that he is dealing with a case of hyperpiesia and to institute the appropriate treatment of this condition.

But if the patient’s blood pressure is consistently high,

it is most unwise to give him the exact figures

because

one of the commoner causes of modern phobias is based upon blood-pressure reading.

If the trend continues,

taking an undue interest in the blood-pressure reading may soon become as much a hobby in Europe as in America.

However,

one of the major advantages which have come out of the increased interest which the profession, as a whole, during the last thirty years, has taken in blood pressure, is that bloodletting is once more coming back into usage.

Dr Howard states in a letter to a reader: 'My work lies largely among the sophisticated and the relatively well-to-do.'

Dr Howard states in a letter to a reader of his After Consulting Hours: ‘My work lies largely among the sophisticated and the relatively well-to-do.’

Thanks to hyperpiesia,

the value of bloodletting in pneumonia or in any affection which troubles the right side of the heart, in plethoric conditions generally, is again being remembered,

although

it fell into disrepute because many years ago it was overdone.

The patient feels so much better after having 600ml of blood removed that he is tempted to demand repeat venesections too soon and too often.

The next ten or twenty years may produce a crop of plethoric individuals

for whom salvation blood will too often be let, bringing the operation back into disrepute.

Meanwhile, subcutaneous oxygen

may be of great value in cases of pneumonia and in some heart lesions.

Stokes-Adams attacks result when

the living liquid of the body has become a viscous substance of the consistency of treacle,

treacliness being caused by the use of arsenic in old men’s venereal diseases. Subcutaneous oxygen is contraindicated in coronary thrombosis, a condition

Bloodletting device of the type probably used by Dr Howard

Bloodletting device of the type probably used by Dr Howard

only comparatively lately noted

and cases of which

are still rare.

The sufferer must on no account make a voluntary movement for many days:

Even the small shock which might be associated with the passage of the needle

to give subcutaneous oxygen might prove fatal. And

it is only by frightening the attendants that an absolute state of immobility can be obtained.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 06.30.29Dalrymple comments:

What a pleasure it must have been to frighten people out of their wits. A real compensation for uselessness.

Alas,

evidence-based medicine will ensure that no one will ever again write After Consulting Hours.

*Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (England); Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians (London)
Bloodletting services: 104 Harley Street

Bloodletting services: 104 Harley Street, where Dr Howard practised