Dalrymple’s July 13th BMJ column is a dissent from medical historian Roy Porter’s claim that 18th century doctors and quacks were not much different:
Well, yes and no. As it happened I read John Huxham in tandem with Porter. Huxham (1692–1768) was a regular physician who discovered nothing, in the sense that there is no Huxham’s disease, Huxham’s law, or Huxham’s sign; it can even be said that he missed a golden opportunity to discover the cause of an epidemic. Yet, though he discovered nothing, and his results with his patients were probably little better than those of the veriest mountebank, yet when one reads him one cannot but respect the diligence, rationality, and devotion with which he investigated the causes of epidemics.…[from] his Observations on the Air and Epidemic Diseases from the year MDCCXXVIII to MDCCXXXVII Inclusive: ….“From the Beginning of the Month Coughs and Catarrhs were frequent, oftentimes attended with a troublesome Tumor of the Fauces, and slight Fevers commonly. Rheumatisms and Squinzies up and down; great lowness of spirits and frequent hysteric Paroxysms every-where.”We may smile at the naivety of this, but it is a serious, if unsuccessful, attempt to interrogate nature by a rational method completely different from that of, say, an itinerant seller of nostrums. So it’s not surprising that, pace Porter’s faintly disguised sneers, progress depended upon the faculty and not upon the quacks.