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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Rival Doctors

By Royall Tyler (1757–1826)

[The Algerine Captive. London Edition. 1802.]

AT length I fixed my residence in a town where four physicians were already in full practice, of such contrariety in theory, that I never knew any two of them agree in any practice but in abusing me, and decrying my skill. It was, however, four months before I had any practice, except the extracting of a tooth from a corn-fed girl, who spun at my lodgings, and who used to look wistfully at me, and ask, if the doctorer did not think the toothache a sign of love? and say she felt dreadfully all over: and the application of a young virgin in the neighborhood, who wished to be favored with a private lecture upon the virtues of the savin bush. I verily believe I might have remained there to this day unemployed, if my landlord, a tavern-keeper, finding my payment for board rather tardy, had not, by sometimes sending his boy in violent haste to call me out of meeting, and always vowing I was acute at the trade, at length drawn the attention of the people towards me.

I had now some opportunity of increasing my information, by inspecting the practice of my seniors. The principal physician had been regularly educated: as I had been so likewise, he affected to pay me some attention on purpose to mortify those three quacks, who, he said, had picked up their knowledge, as they did their medicine, by the wayside. He was a very formal man in manners and practice. He thought fresh air highly noxious in all diseases. I once visited a patient of his, in dog-days, whose parched tongue and acrid skin denoted a violent fever. I was almost suffocated upon entering the room. The windows were closed, and the cracks stuffed with tow; the curtains were drawn close round the patient’s bed, which was covered with a rug and three comfortable blankets; a large fire was made in the room; the door listed, and the key-hole stopped; while the doctor gravely administered irritating stimulants to allay the fever. He carried a favorite practical author in his bags; and, after finding the patient’s case in the index, pulled out a pair of money-scales, and, with the utmost nicety, weighed off the prescribed dose to the decimal of a drachm. He told me, as a great secret, that about thirteen years and one day past, he had nearly destroyed a patient, by administering half a drachm of pill cochia more than was prescribed in the books. He was called the “learned doctor.”

The practice of the second town physician was directly opposite. He prescribed large doses of the most powerful drugs. If he had been inclined to weigh his medicine, I believe it would have been with gross weight, rather than troy. He was an untaught disciple of the English Ratcliffe, careless, daring, and often successful. He was admirable in nervous cases, rose cancers, and white swellings. Upon the first symptoms of these stubborn disorders, he would drive them, and the subjects of them, to a state of quiescence. He was called the “cheap doctor;” because he always speedily cured or—killed.

The third physician dealt altogether in simples. The only compound he ever gave, or took, was buttered flip, for a cough. It was said, that, if he did no good, he never did any harm. He was called the “safe doctor.”

The fourth physician was not celebrated for being learned, safe, or cheap; but he had more practice than all the other three put together, for he was a musical man, and well gifted in prayer.

There was another gentleman in town, who had some pretensions to the character of a physician: even the same pretensions as the crowned heads of Europe have to their wisdom, power, and greatness. He derived it from his birth; for he was the seventh son of a seventh son, and his mother was a doctress. He did not indeed bear the name or rank, but I number him with the learned, as he was sometimes called to visit a patient at that critical, interesting period, when the other physicians had given him over; but his ordinary practice lay wholly among sheep, horses, and cattle. He also could boast of astonishing success, and was as proud and opinionated as the best of them; and, for aught I know, it was as instructive to hear him talk of his ring-bones, wind-galls, and spavins, as to hear our first physician descant upon his paroxysms and peripneumony.

Being sent for one day to attend a man whose leg was said to be broken by a fall from a frame at a raising, I found, upon my arrival at the patient’s, that a brother of the faculty, from the vicinity, had arrived before me, and completed the operation. He was celebrated for his skill in desperate cases; and universally allowed to be a man of learning. He had prescribed a gill of burnt brandy, with a pepper-pod in it, to keep up the patient’s spirits under the operation, and took another himself, to keep his hand steady. He splintered the fractured limb with the bone of two pair of old-fashioned stays he had caused to be ripped to pieces, and bound round the leg with all the garters in the neighborhood. He bowed gracefully as I entered, and regretted extremely that he had not my assistance in setting the bones; and, with a loud voice, and the most unparalleled assurance, began to lay the case before me, and amplify the operation he had performed. “Sir,” said he, “when I came to view the patient, I had little hopes of saving his life. I found the two lesser bones of the leg, the musa and the tristis, shivered into a thousand splinters; while the larger bone, the ambobus, had happily escaped unhurt.” Perceiving I could scarce refrain from laughing, and was about to speak—“Sir,” said he, winking upon me, “I perceive you are one of us men of science, and I wish you to suspend your opinion until a private consultation, lest our conversation may alarm the patient too much, for you know, as the learned Galen observes,

  • Omne quod exit in Hum, seu Græcum, sive Latinum,
  • Esse genus neutrum, sic invariabile nomen
  • By the way, nurse, these learned languages are apt to make the professors of them very thirsty.” While the toddy was making, he proceeded:—“When I pondered this perilous, piteous, pertinaceous, pestiferous, petrifying case, I immediately thought of the directions of the learned doctors, Hudibras and M’Fingal, not forgetting, as the wound was on the leg, the great Cruikshank’s church history.” When we had drunk our liquor, of which he took four-fifths, by his direction a new mug was made a little stronger, and we retired to our consultation.

    “I am much obliged to you,” said he, “for not discovering my ignorance to these people; though it is ten to one if I had not rather convinced the blockheads of yours, if you had attempted it. A regular bred physician, some time since, attempted this. He declared, over the sick man’s bed, that I was ignorant and presuming. I replied that he was a quack; and offered to leave our pretensions to knowledge to the company, which consisted of a midwife, two experienced nurses, and some others, not so eminent for learning. He quoted Cullen and Chesselden; and I Tully and Virgil: until at length, when I had nearly exhausted my stock of cant phrases, and he was gaining the attention of our judges, I luckily bethought me of Lilly’s Grammar. I began Propria quæ Maribus; and, before I had got twenty lines, the opinion of the audience was apparently in my favor. They judged naturally enough that I was the most learned man, because the most unintelligible. This raised the doctor’s ire so much, that, from disputing with me, he turned to berate them for a parcel of fools, sots, and old women, to put their lives in the hands of such an ignoramus as me. This quickly decided the contest in my favor. The old nurses raised their voices, the midwife her broomstick, and the whole train of mob-capped judges their skinny fists, and we drove him out of the house in triumph. Our victory was so complete, that, in military style, we did not allow him to remain on the field to bury his dead.

    “But it is time to tell you who I am. Sir, I drink your health. In brief, sir, I am the son of a respectable clergyman, received a college education, entered into merchandise, failed, and, by a train of misfortunes, was obliged to commence doctor, for sustenance. I settled myself in this back country. At first I was applied to chiefly in desperate cases; where no reputation is lost if the patient dies, and much gained if he recovers. I have performed some surprising cures; but how I cannot tell you, except it was by allowing my patients small-beer, or anything else they hankered after, which I have heard was sometimes efficacious in the crisis of a fever. But talking of drink, sir, I wish your health. I believe I have never injured any persons by my prescriptions, as powdered burnt crust, chalk, and juice of beets and carrots, are my most powerful medicines. We can be of mutual service to each other.—Nurse, another mug. We doctors find this a very difficult case.—As I have borne down these country quacks by superior effrontery, I can recommend you to full practice. I will call you to consult with me in difficult cases; for as I was saying,—sir, I wish your good health,—mine are all difficult cases; and you, in return, shall lend me books, and give me such instructions as will enable me to do good, as well as get fame and bread.” The proposal was reasonable. I closed with it. He emptied the third mug, and we returned to our patient. When the dressings were removed, I discovered that there was not the slightest fracture of the fibula or tibia; but only a slight contusion on the patula, which would perhaps not have alarmed any other person but our patient, who was a rich old bachelor. I recommended an emollient, which my learned brother acquiesced in, saying, with his usual air, that it was the very application he intended, having applied the garters and whalebone merely to concoct the tristis, the musa, and the ambobus, firmly together.

    A young girl, at the door, showed him a wound on her elbow, which she had received in struggling about red ears at a husking; which he gravely pronounced to be a fistula in ano. This gentleman is really a man of abilities; has since made valuable acquirements in the knowledge of the human frame, and the materia medica. If he could be led to substitute the aquatic draughts of Doctor Sangrado, as a succedaneum for the diffusible stimuli of Brown, he would become useful in the faculty, and yet see happy days.

    The doctor kept his word. He read my books, received my instructions, and recommended me to his patients. But, as I copied my preceptor, in the simplicity of my language, I never attempted to excite the fear of my patients, to magnify my skill; and could not reduce three fractured bones in a limb which contained but two. My advice was little attended to, except when backed by that of my pupil, accompanied with frequent quotations from Lilly. He obtained all the credit of our success; and the people generally supposed me a young man of moderate talents, whom the learned doctor might make something of in the course of years.