The total institution of Somerset Maugham


A renewed dedication to thoroughness has led your skeptical bloggers to the stunning realization that we have been missing quite a number of Dalrymple pieces. Namely – gulp – 37 of them. In particular, a change in the British Medical Journal’s website caused us to think Dalrymple was no longer writing there, and so we missed an entire summer’s worth of his BMJ pieces. So we’ll be doing some catch-up and will post a few per day so as not to inundate our email subscribers’ inboxes all at once.


For starters, this BMJ piece (subscription required) from, uh, May 29th covers Somerset Maugham’s short story “Sanatorium”:



W Somerset Maugham was admitted to a luxurious tuberculosis sanatorium in Scotland in 1918 and described it in a short story called “Sanatorium,” published in 1947. The oldest resident (one could hardly call him a patient any longer) is called McLeod, and has been there for 17 years. Naively, the protagonist, a young man named Ashenden, asks him what he does with himself all day long:

“Do? Having TB is a whole-time job, my boy. There’s my temperature to take and then I weigh myself. I don’t hurry over my dressing. I have breakfast, I read the papers and go for a walk. Then I have my rest. I lunch and play bridge. I have another rest and then I dine. I play a bit more bridge and I go to bed.”


McLeod’s life is enlivened by an enmity with the second oldest resident, Campbell, who covets his room, the best in the sanatorium, and waits for him to die so that he can inherit it. When he does suddenly die—having defeated Campbell at bridge with a grand slam doubled and redoubled—the greatest ambition of Campbell’s life having been fulfilled, the light goes out of his life and he soon follows McLeod to the grave: petty enmity was the only purpose of his existence.

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