The Doctor’s Family

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Doctors in fiction tend, like those who appear in contemporary newspapers, to be heroes or villains; but Dr Edward Rider, in Margaret Oliphant’s novella, The Doctor’s Family, is neither. He is good, but not very good; his very defects are those of weakness rather than of malice. If I had to use a single word to describe his character, it would be wet.

Dr Rider has an older brother, Fred, who was also a doctor and who, at least according to himself, was much more talented than Edward, whose paltry practice in the little town of Carlingford he despises. If he had not given himself up to drink and parasitising his brother, his own career would have been, in his estimate, very much more spectacular than Edward’s; as it is, he ends up falling drunk into a local canal and drowning, mourned by no one.

Margaret Oliphant (1828 – 1897) actually had a brother very like Fred Rider, but he was a clergyman rather than a doctor. His drinking became incompatible with his preaching and he was forced to resign. Thereafter he was supported by his sister in a sluggish life of alcoholism and reading novels, though he did manage to pass off at least four books of his sister’s as his own. Perhaps coincidentally Mrs Oliphant, a prodigiously productive writer, had two sons of the same feckless disposition.

Among Dr Edward Rider’s purely medical shortcomings is an inability to distance himself from his own emotional state. When finally he finds a bride he is so happy that:

Those patients who had paid for Dr Rider’s disappointments in many a violent prescription, got compensation today in honeyed draughts and hopeful prognostications.

No doctor nowadays, of course, treats a patient according to which side of the bed he gets out of. We maintain our scientific objectivity in all circumstances.

The Doctor’s Family was published in 1861 and, together with some other stories of the fictional town of Carlingford, made Mrs Oliphant popular for a time. A story published in the same year about Carlingford, called The Rector, is perhaps of even more medical interest than The Doctor’s Family, though it concerns a rector rather than a doctor.

Morely Proctor has spent many years as a Fellow of All Souls’, Oxford, producing dry-as-dust studies of ancient Greek verbs, but for family reasons decides to take the rectorship of Carlingford. Having spent his entire adult life among bachelor male academics, he is intimidated by the normal society of men and women; and one day he happens to be passing a house in which a woman is on the point of death. Called in to give her religious consolation, he finds he can say nothing except what she knows is not true, that perhaps she is not dying after all, and that she should call the doctor.

By happy chance, a young curate called the Reverend Wentworth, inferior in rank, seniority and education to the Reverend Proctor, happens to be passing also, and he finds at once the words to console the dying woman and ease her passing.

Are communication skills and human sympathy innate or taught? The Reverend Proctor concludes that they are the former, and that he will never be any good at them; he is happier with his Greek verbs and therefore, being a man of probity, resigns his rectorship to go back to All Souls. These days, of course, no dean of any medical school would dare to agree with him.

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