Wednesday, November 23, 2011

`Have a Book Open on Your Dressing Table'

“For the general practitioner a well-used library is one of the few correctives of the premature senility which is so apt to overtake him. Self-centered, self-taught, he leads a solitary life, and unless his every-day experience is controlled by careful reading or by the attrition of a medical society it soon ceases to be of the slightest value and becomes a mere accretion of isolated facts, without correlation.”

On the self-help shelf in the library bookshop I found a third edition (1932) of William Osler’s extravagantly titled Aequanimitas, with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine, first published in 1904. We no longer expect doctors to be literate (or writers to know anything about medicine and science), though recently I interviewed the nation’s top thrombosis man and learned not only that he once treated Mikhail Gorbachev but has read all of Solzhenitsyn in English. At my urging he’s now reading Dead Souls. He had never heard of Osler (1849-1919).

I paid four dollars for the book. On the endpaper in black ink is inscribed “Ralph M. Lechausse, Richmond, Va. 1935.” Below that, in the same hand: “To A.B. – Montreal Oct. 1936.” The identity of “A.B.” is revealed at the bottom of the endpaper in another hand: “A. Bernard Gray.” Tucked between pages 436 and 437 is a memo written on the letterhead of “Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, U.S.A.” It’s dated “Nineteen Thirty-Five,” addressed “Dear Doctor,” and begins:

“Together with congratulations on your attainment of a medical degree, this volume of addresses by Sir William Osler, who adorned your profession in the United States for many years, is cordially presented.”

Here is the third of four paragraphs:

“May you share with him his `relish of knowledge’ and his absorbing love and passionate, persistent search for truth.”

One can hardly imagine the world suggested by this gift and message, even if we dismiss it as promotional boilerplate. It implies respect for a physician dead sixteen years and a pharmaceutical company’s understanding that a collection of his medical addresses might constitute “graft.” Also, that a doctor might be engaged in a “search for truth.”

One of Osler’s lectures is titled “Men and Books,” from which the passage quoted above is taken. In it he quotes or alludes to Dr. Johnson, Bunyan, Milton, Cotton Mather, Horace, James Russell Lowell, Washington Irving and many physicians. Osler writes: “I should like to see in each library a select company of the Immortals set apart for special admiration.” At the end of the volume, perhaps to clarify that by books he means more than just medical texts, Osler adds a “Bed-side Library for Medical Students.” A liberal education, he assures us, “may be had at a very slight cost of time and money.” He urges medical students to “get the education, if not of a scholar, at least of a gentleman,” and suggests:

“Before going to sleep read for half an hour, and in the morning have a book open on your dressing table. You will be surprised to find how much can be accomplished in the course of a year.”

Here is Osler’s prescription for a liberal education:

I. Old and New Testament.
II. Shakespeare.
III. Montaigne.
IV. Plutarch’s Lives.
V. Marcus Aurelius.
VI. Epictetus.
VII. Religio Medici.
VIII. Don Quixote.
IX. Emerson.
X. Oliver Wendell Holmes—Breakfast-Table Series.

[An eagle-eyed reader in Dallas informs us that Dr. A. Bernard Gray, an orthopedic surgeon, died last March at the age of ninety-eight: "During his lifetime of medical practice he treated many patients who were unable to pay, and performed many unique and creative surgical procedures.  Bernard was not only a man of great professional accomplishment and dedication, he was a loving patriarch.  His family was his greatest pleasure." Read his complete obituary here.]

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

What a lovely post - a window into a world I remember vividly but would doubt was ever real if not for your reminder.

My how things have changed. The same company that gave Dr. Osler's book away to graduating medical doctors (or more precisely the heir to that company) more recently gave the largest gift in literary history (or more precisely in the history of poetry), $100 million, to Poetry Magazine, Harriett Monroe's old hobbyrag. Instead of using that generous donation to encourage non-bad poetry in their magazine, they took it upon themselves to build their own monument to themselves on the the Gold Coast of Chicago, one that is as soporific as any Lilly pharmaceutical. Recently, some prankster scotch-taped a banner to one of the rails there that read "what if Emily Dickinson was prescribed Prozac?"

The conditions of contemporary poets and doctors seem remarkably congruent.