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BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 829.
PMCID: PMC2034725
Between the Lines

Miscellaneous truths

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

The Harleian Miscellany is a selection of early pamphlets from the library of the Earl of Oxford, catalogued by Samuel Johnson, and first published in 1744. Whoever opens one of its 10 volumes is almost certain to be detained for hours, for who can resist titles such as “A short, legal, useful, safe, and easy Prescription to recover our Kingdom, Church and Nation, from their present dangerous, distractive, destructive Confusion, and worse than Bedlam Madness,” a title to ensure perennial contemporary relevance, though published in 1659?

Or again, “The She-Wedding: or, a Mad Marriage, between Mary, a Seaman's Mistress, and Margaret, a Carpenter's Wife, at Deptford, being a full Relation of a cunning Intrigue, carried on and managed by two Women, to hide the Discovery of a great Belly, and make the Parents of her Sweet-heart provide for the same,” published in 1684, and which begins with an eloquent but no longer admissible animadversion on the nature of women:

It hath been the policy of the prince of darkness in all ages, when any work of his was to be carried on, which required a more than ordinary cunning, to employ a female craft therein: nor indeed from his first attempt in that kind, in the betraying our mother Eve, did he ever find reason to blame his discretion in the said method, since he scarce ever failed thereby of his ends.

There is much of medical interest in the miscellany—for example, “A Discourse, setting forth the unhappy Condition of the Practice of Physick, and offering some Means to put it into a better; for the Interests of Patients, no less, or rather much more, than of Physicians,” by Jonathan Goddard, professor at the Gresham College, published in 1670.

“No less, or rather much more” seems to betray a certain unease or anxiety: methinks the doctor doth protest too much. Yet which of us in present day Britain could strongly disagree with Dr Goddard in his defence of the profession?

The art of physick hath had, in common with other arts and professions, the infelicity to be abused by the professors thereof; who, either out of insatiable avarice to make the utmost gain to themselves thereby, or out of pride and state, or humour, have given just occasion to the world to judge, that they had not that care and consideration of the lives and healths of persons with whom they had to do, as, in humanity, reason and conscience, they ought to have had.

No doubt this is still so; and newspapers call me several times a year to ask me to reveal what a bad lot doctors are. But we ought to get things into perspective, as Dr Goddard did a third of a millennium ago: “Admitting this to be inexcusable, as to the persons guilty of it; yet it may be said, as to the present professors thereof, that there was never in any age, less grievance or cause for complaint upon any such account.”

Bravo! Of no age is this more true than our own. Nevertheless, Dr Goddard goes on to diagnose the reason for hostility to the profession: “That distinction between the vices of persons, and of arts and professions, is so clear and obvious, that whosoever transfers those of one upon the other, must needs appear deficient in the use of his reason, or else partial and injurious.”

But then, governments are both deficient in their use of reason and partial and injurious.

Newspapers call me several times a year to ask me to reveal what a bad lot doctors are


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