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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1774)

On Physicians

From “Letters from a Citizen of the World”

WHATEVER may be the merits of the English in other sciences, they seem peculiarly excellent in the art of healing. There is scarcely a disorder incident to humanity against which they are not possessed with a most infallible antidote. The professors of other arts confess the inevitable intricacy of things; talk with doubt, and decide with hesitation; but doubting is entirely unknown in medicine. The advertising professors here delight in cases of difficulty; be the disorder never so desperate or radical, you will find numbers in every street, who, by levelling a pill at the part affected, promise a certain cure, without loss of time, knowledge of a bedfellow, or hindrance of business.

When I consider the assiduity of this profession, their benevolence amazes me. They not only in general give their medicines for half value, but use the most persuasive remonstrances to induce the sick to come and be cured. Sure, there must be something strangely obstinate in an English patient who refuses so much health upon such easy terms. Does he take pride in being bloated with a dropsy; does he find pleasure in the alternations of an intermittent fever; or feel as much satisfaction in nursing up his gout as he found pleasure in acquiring it? He must, otherwise he would never reject such repeated assurances of instant relief. What can be more convincing than the manner in which the sick are invited to be well? The doctor first begs the most earnest attention of the public to what he is going to propose; he solemnly affirms the pill was never found to want success; he produces a list of those who have been rescued from the grave by taking it; yet, notwithstanding all this, there are many here who now and then think proper to be sick. Only sick, did I say? There are some who even think proper to die! Yes, by the head of Confucius! they die; though they might have purchased the health-restoring specific for half a crown at every corner.

I am amazed, my dear Fum Hoam, that these doctors, who know what an obstinate set of people they have to deal with, have never thought of attempting to revive the dead. When the living are found to reject their prescriptions, they ought in conscience to apply to the dead, from whom they can expect no such mortifying repulses. They would find in the dead the most complying patients imaginable; and what gratitude might they not expect from the patient’s son, now no longer an heir, and his wife, now no longer a widow!

Think not, my friend, that there is anything chimerical in such an attempt; they already perform cures equally strange. What can be more truly astonishing than to see old age restored to youth, and vigour to the most feeble constitutions? Yet this is performed here every day; a simple electuary effects these wonders, even without the bungling ceremonies of having the patient boiled up in a kettle or ground down in a mill.

Few physicians here go through the ordinary courses of education, but receive all their knowledge of medicine by immediate inspiration from heaven. Some are thus inspired even in the womb, and, what is very remarkable, understand their profession as well at three years old as at three-score. Others have spent a great part of their lives unconscious of any latent excellence, till a bankruptcy or a residence in jail have called their miraculous powers into exertion. And others still there are indebted to their superlative ignorance alone for success; the more ignorant the practitioner, the less capable is he thought of deceiving. The people here judge as they do in the East, where it is thought absolutely requisite that a man should be an idiot before he pretends to be either a conjurer or a doctor.

When a physician by inspiration is sent for, he never perplexes the patient by previous examination; he asks very few questions, and those only for form’s sake. He knows every disorder by intuition; he administers the pill or drop for every distemper; nor is more inquisitive than the farrier while he drenches a horse. If the patient lives, then has he one more to add to the surviving list; if he dies, then it may be justly said of the patient’s disorder, that as it was not cured, the disorder was incurable.