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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 August 4; 335(7613): 263.
PMCID: PMC1939773
Between the Lines

A bit of a doctor

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Pulp fiction is not literature, of course, but that of a bygone age is not without historical interest. It also tells us something of the popular medical conceptions of its period.

Edgar Wallace was the most famous author of his day. He wrote 175 novels, and 160 films were made of them. His publisher claimed in the 1920s that one in four books sold in Britain was “an Edgar Wallace.” Quite often, when you buy a second hand copy of one of his books, a previous owner has ticked the titles he has read on the list of other books by Edgar Wallace that appears before the title page, as if reading them were in compliance with a religious duty. The desire for completeness sometimes takes strange forms.

Sanders of the River, published in 1911, is one of Wallace's most famous books. Sanders is a district commissioner in a British African territory (Wallace is very imprecise in his geography, and can hardly tell his east from his west and central Africa). I don't think you have to be politically correct to find Sanders' tendency to administer swift justice, in the form of the “scientific hanging” and “scientific flogging” of natives a little alarming, especially as it is obviously held up to the admiration of his readers, who probably pursued dull white-collar jobs and longed for something a little more exciting.

The sound of the Maxim gun as it mows down African warriors with spears—the “ha!ha!ha!” of the gun, as Wallace puts it—also features quite frequently in the pages. As do medical matters.

Sanders' cook, Lataki, tries to poison him with ground glass in his chop, perhaps not altogether surprisingly, in view of Sanders' treatment of him: “Lataki was no stoic and when, tied to a tree, ten strokes were laid upon his stout back . . . he cried out very loudly against Sanders, and against the civilisation of which Sanders was the chosen instrument.”

Sanders is visited one day by Professor Sir George Carsley, of St Mark's Hospital, London, “a great scientist and the author of many books on tropical diseases.” (We must remember here that Wallace's definition of an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex.)

Sir George announces that he wants to study the witch-doctor, and anticipates, against Sanders' mocking scepticism, “making valuable scientific discoveries through my intercourse with them.” This, of course, is strikingly in advance of his time.

Sir George goes missing in the bush, but later turns up having gone native, except for the fact that he is administering hydrogen cyanide to all and sundry.

Sanders himself is a bit of a doctor. When someone is unconscious, he tries smelling salts first, and then an injection of strychnine, which revives the recipient no end.

The most interesting medical incident, however, involves Claude Hyell Cuthbert, a thrusting young man who arrives in search of a mining concession in Sanders' district. Unfortunately, he becomes convinced that he has sleeping sickness because he feels very sleepy, and he knows that he has been bitten by tsetse flies. He crawls away to a hut to die, and spends several weeks there, but Sanders discovers the real reason for his apathy and sleepiness: a chief called Basambo has given Cuthbert a lot of Indian hemp to smoke.

So Edgar Wallace discovered the amotivational syndrome.

When someone is unconscious, he tries smelling salts first, and then an injection of strychnine, which revives the recipient no end

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