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BMJ. 2007 August 18; 335(7615): 351.
PMCID: PMC1949478
Between the Lines

Where there's a will

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

As everyone knows, the philosopher Francis Bacon was one of the founders of the empirical method in the sciences. Indeed, he was almost a martyr to it, for one day he alighted from his coach to gather snow with which to stuff a dead chicken to establish whether or not refrigeration preserved animal flesh, and in so doing caught a fatal chill.

What, I wonder, is the empirical evidence that behaving as Bacon behaved predisposes to fatal infections? Certainly as a child I behaved like it all the time, for I obstinately refused to wear a coat in winter or take any notice of the holes in my shoes when walking in the rain. Perhaps it is a question of age.

When it comes to medical matters, Bacon left a list of prescriptions and their uses, and they are not evidence based, to say the least. He was a polypharmacist who didn't even see proof of efficacy as a problem.

Here is his method of preparing what he called “grains of youth”: “Take of nitre four grains, of ambergrease three grains, of orris-powder two grains, of white poppy-seed the fourth part of a grain, of saffron half a grain, with water of orange-flowers, and a little tragacanth; make them all into small grains, four in number. To be taken at four o-clock, or going to bed.

Some of his prescriptions were rather unpleasant and messy. As a “preservative ointment” he suggests “deers suet one ounce, of myrrh six grains, of saffron five grain, of hay-salt twelve grains, of Canary wine, of two years old, a spoonful and a half.” Then comes the nasty bit: “Spread it on the inside of your shirt, and let it dry, and then put it on.”

There is also Methaselem water, “against all asperity and torrefaction of inward parts, and all adustion of the blood, and generally against the dryness of age.” For what he calls “openers,” presumably of the bowels, he recommends no fewer than 69 substances, among them solution of millipedes and man's urine. As for “astringents,” which “by cherishing the strength of the parts, do comfort and confirm their retentive power,” he suggests a “stomacher of scarlet cloth or whelps, or young healthy boys, applied to the stomach.”

Sometimes even Bacon's psychology goes amiss: for example, when, in his Essay on Death, he suggests that “death is disagreeable to most citizens, because they commonly die intestate,” not wishing to tempt fate with a will.

But Bacon sometimes speaks sense on medical matters. In his Ornamenta Rationalia, for example, he says “that a sick man does ill for himself who makes his physician his heir.” As it happened, I was on a visit to Eastbourne when I read this, and one of the most celebrated medical men of that town was the late Dr Bodkin Adams. Among his patients were rich old widows who made wills in his favour, and tended not to live long afterwards. They died from, or at least with, large doses of opiates.

Strictly speaking, the career of Bodkin Adams was not illustrative of the truth of Bacon's dictum, because he was found not guilty, and rightly so: for it was not proved that he did more than he said, “easing the passing.”

Still, it would be a pretty dogmatic empiricist who demanded proof of the wisdom of Bacon's observation.

Bacon says “that a sick man does ill for himself who makes his physician his heir.”


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