How Dalrymple became a doctor

In 1987 Anthony Daniels published his memoirs at the age of 38, a brief span of life he had nevertheless already managed to fill with wide-ranging and provocative experience. The book, “Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor“, is by turns funny, poignant and fascinating – a must-read for every Dalrymple admirer.

In the opening pages, which we present to you here, he describes the process by which he became a doctor:


Twenty years ago, while I was still at school, I went to Battersea Funfair. There was a small booth with the following notice attached:

As Patronised by the Gentry and seen on TV

I entered. Across a small round table with a floral tablecloth and a water-filled glass that substituted for a crystal ball sat a somewhat bored-looking lady with large copper earrings and a scarf over her head to match the tablecloth.

‘One ‘and or two?’ she said.

‘What’s the difference?’ I asked.

‘Five bob one ‘and, ten bob two. Or a pound the tealeaves.’

I chose one hand.

She took it with a slight curl of her lip as if to say, I thought as much, and followed a few of my palmar creases with her long crimson nail.

‘You’ll be educated’, she said. ‘It’ll take a long time.’

I did not demur.

‘A lawyer…or a doctor perhaps. Yes, a doctor.’

I was taken aback.

‘You’ll travel a lot. And you’ll live to be eighty-four.’

My five shillings’ worth of prophecy was over. I did become a doctor and I have travelled a lot. Whether I live to be eighty-four remains to be seen.



‘And why do you want to be a doctor?’

I, a somewhat callow youth of seventeen, faced the men of the medical school interview board across the shining table.

It was not an unexpected or an unreasonable question to ask. Indeed, I had rehearsed my answer on the train. I had vowed against replying with any clichés about wishing to help humanity, relieve suffering, etc.

‘I would like to help people,’ I said.

‘Have you ever helped people before?’ asked a rather stern member of the board.

I did not know what to answer. I wondered whether relinquishing my seat on buses for old ladies counted.

‘You say you want to help people. Have you joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade? Have you attended first aid courses?’

‘No,’ I said, shamefacedly.

‘Why not?’

Having scored a small dialectical triumph, the member of the board wanted to pursue the point.

‘I haven’t had time.’

‘Haven’t had time to help people? You can’t want to help them very much.’

He was right, of course. I didn’t wish humanity any harm, but on the other hand I wasn’t excessively anxious about its welfare either.

I had, in a manner of speaking, been found out. My looks of dismay must have revealed more to the board than my answers, but not quite the depths of my discomfort. For the question ‘Why do you want to be a doctor?’ contained a premise that, in my case, was completely unjustified, namely that I did actually want to be a doctor. ‘Why have you applied to medical school?’ would have been a less tendentious question.

And the true answer would scarcely have secured me a place. I applied to medical school because I was middle class; because I had to do something; but more than anything else, because my father had pushed me into it. There had been a time, it is true, when I was ten or eleven, when I and a close friend of mine dreamed jointly of becoming doctors; of scientific fame and glory, of winning the Nobel Prize at the unprecedented age of fourteen by discovering the secret of cancer, which we felt must lie in the ugly, knobbly growths that affected all the apple trees in my garden. But those dreams had long since faded and my ambitions lay elsewhere. I wanted to be an historian or a philosopher rather than a doctor, but my father insisted – not unreasonably, perhaps – that it was unlikely I should ever be able to earn a decent living that way. Science, he said, and science alone, was the passport now to worldly success. He was not the kind of man lightly to be contradicted, and since biology was to me the most congenial of the sciences I chose medicine as a career, though I knew even then that I should never be wholeheartedly devoted to it.

Thus I entered medical school with reservations from the first. My career as a student was undistinguished, quite unlike those of doctors who achieve an obituary in The Lancet. I specialized in doing and knowing the least necessary to pass the examinations. Only occasionally did I exert myself beyond the minimum, to assure myself that I could, if I so desired, achieve excellent marks. I found that I could get by (or ‘satisfy the examiners’, as they put it) with very little effort, leaving myself free to study matters that then, but not now, seemed to me more important.

The course of study I prescribed for myself consisted largely of philosophy, with the result that while I can discourse with fluency on the ontological argument of St Anselm, my knowledge of the anatomy of the inner ear is a little hazy (not that it matters greatly: most doctors, other than specialists, treat ears with antibiotics and then, if they fail to improve, with referrals to specialists). I can also provide my patients with a satisfactory refutation of Marxian epistemology, but not, alas, a convincing explanation of how some of the drugs I prescribe achieve their effects. I now bitterly regret my inattention to my medical studies, for the fundamentals of a subject are never satisfactorily acquired later; but I was young and chose not to believe that anything I did then, or failed to do, would affect me for the rest of my life. I imagined that by taxing my brain with Descartes and Hume I was treating of questions larger than why Mrs Smith’s leg had swelled up. Now I should reverse my priorities; for, as Hume would have been the first to admit, toothache is quite sufficient to destroy any philosophy.

Copyright 1987 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

One thought on “How Dalrymple became a doctor

  1. Destin

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