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BMJ. 2007 November 17; 335(7628): 1049.
PMCID: PMC2078635
Between the Lines

In memoriam

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Am I morbid when I say that there comes a time in life when you wonder what people will say about you when you're gone? The answer, of course, is that they won't think at all about you, at least for much or most of the time. Life itself dictates that it must go on even without our help: we are as pebbles dropped into a pond, causing a few ripples at most.

When Dr Levet, whom Boswell described as “an obscure practitioner of physic” and who came of the humblest background, died in 1782 aged 77, the landlord with whom he had lodged for many years wrote a commemorative poem that immortalised him. It happened that his landlord was Doctor Johnson, himself 72 at the time.

Their relationship was a strange one. Levet was not talkative or amusing when he did talk, but it seems that Doctor Johnson took comfort in his taciturn presence and may have been lonely without it. Levet left Johnson's house every day to do his rounds in the worst slums of London. Johnson used the occasion of Levet's death to reflect on how our journey through life is blind and ends in woe: “Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,/As we toil from day to day,/By sudden blasts, or slow decline/Our social comforts pass away.” It is clear that Dr Levet was a very considerable prop to Johnson, who lamented his death deeply.

What did Johnson see in Levet that elicited such admiration in the poem? Levet, who had worked as a waiter in a coffeehouse in Paris, was encouraged by some French surgeons to attend lectures on anatomy and physic and then returned to England to practise among the poorest of the poor. “In misery's darkest caverns known,/His useful care was ever nigh,/Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,/And lonely want retir'd to die.”

It is unlikely that he was ever able to do much for his patients but offer them placebos and bring them comfort, but that was much in the circumstances. Levet was not a scholar or a gentleman, but Johnson saw his virtues and appreciated them: “Yet still he fills affection's eye,/Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;/Nor, letter's arrogance, deny/Thy praise to merit unrefined.”

It was Levet's modesty that touched Doctor Johnson, who all his life struggled, with varying degrees of success, against the sin of pride. Levet never refused an appeal for help, nor did he charge his patients very much: “No summons mock'd by chill delay,/No petty gain disdain'd by pride,/The modest wants of ev'ry day/The toil of every day supplied.”

Sometimes Levet would receive payment in drams of alcohol, the only fee available; and Doctor Johnson said of him that he was perhaps the only man who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence.

Often in my life I wished that I could have been as Robert Levet, but ambition and (let us be frank) a desire for gain have prevented me from being so, as I suspect they have prevented many another. Of how many of us could it be said that, as Johnson wrote of Levet, “His virtues walk'd their narrow round,/Nor made a pause, nor left a void?”

Sometimes Levet would receive payment in drams of alcohol, the only fee available; and Doctor Johnson said of him that he was perhaps the only man who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence


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