Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Skeptical Doctor

Fool or Physician
By Anthony Daniels
Published March 26, 1987
John Murray Publishers Ltd
Language: English
ISBN-10: 071954355X
ISBN-13: 978-071954355X
View at Amazon

“Every man at thirty is a fool or a physician,” goes the supposedly English proverb on the title page of Anthony Daniels’ memoirs, published when the author was just 38. In truth the national origin of the adage is murky, the relevant age is variable, and its accuracy (as the author’s stories demonstrate) is highly debatable. But as a binary proposition it certainly works in his favor, as “Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor” shows how Daniels’ reluctant medical career became a ticket to an astonishingly interesting life of endless intellectual pursuit.

As is often the case when adolescent idealism yields to adult wisdom, Daniels’ early professional years are marked by encounters with (in this case mostly hilarious) human irrationality. But for most of us it doesn’t happen in mental hospitals, Pacific atolls or apartheid South Africa. Daniels’ adventurousness allows us to be treated to stories of doctors simultaneously brilliant and immensely naïve, racist white African colonists, superstitious black Africans, physicians who prescribe medications they know won’t work, patients who take them for no clear reason, murderous husbands and their morally confused wives, and island natives with unearned riches who set their new sports cars on fire when they run out of gas – then buy another the following day.

Humorous, at times touching, and full of the philosophical musings and insightful observations of human behavior that are Daniels’ hallmarks, it is his most personal work – and quite possibly his best.

He never wanted to be a doctor, choosing the profession only

“…because I was middle class; because I had to do something; but more than anything else, because my father had pushed me into it…I wanted to be an historian or a philosopher…I entered medical school somewhat reluctantly, with reservations from the first… 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 than 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…I imagined that by taxing my brain with Descartes and Hume I was treating of questions larger and more important 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.”

Upon graduation Daniels takes the first step in what would become a lifelong journey of discovery, choosing to work at a hospital in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to “discover where in the world pure evil still confronted pure good, where I could demonstrate that I was on the side of the angels, but at the same time live comfortably and register with the General Medical Council” and see the crumbling British Empire before it disappeared. His colleagues were not encouraging:

“It was tantamount to professional suicide, they said; I should never get another job when I returned to Britain; the regime had a terrible reputation for brutality; besides which, it was illegal for a Briton to give aid and comfort to the white rebels of Africa.

“I did not find these arguments compelling. I could not conceive that my presence would give aid and comfort to anyone (not even patients, let alone whole regimes); and as for my career in Britain, supposing I had one, I gave it no further thought.”

In Rhodesia Daniels discovers the ingrained racism of the whites, their blindness to the coming revolution, and the impressive dignity with which the blacks are able to endure a life of material hardship. This last observation (first perceived in the fatalistic acceptance shown by the mother of an infant patient Daniels accidentally causes to die) would motivate many of his later writings on poverty, leading him to deny the easy, commonplace linkage between economic well-being and happiness.

Later, after a brief and frightening trip through newly-liberated, Marxist Mozambique, he spends a month studying the history of apartheid in a library in Cape Town, South Africa. Sleeping at a YMCA and reduced to a net worth of 52 rand (roughly $40 at the time), he finds work at a private practice in Natal Province standing in for the white proprietor, who is temporarily disabled by Scotch.

His stay not only reveals the evils of apartheid, but also unclothes its stupidity. The doctor informs Daniels that a colleague at Pretoria University has discovered a unique gland in the armpits of Africans, accounting for their smell. (Daniels blames their lack of running water). The stethoscope reserved for black patients has a much longer tube than the one for whites, enabling the doctor to maintain a safe distance from the apparently contagious blackness. The doctor’s wife asks Daniels what the natives are like in England. (“Friendly,” he replies, “but getting cheeky.”)

An ensuing stint in the superlatively misnamed black township of Edendale further demonstrates the wealth of provocative experience characterizing Daniels’ life. An encounter of remarkable poignance begins with a Sunday morning investigation into some Zulu singing coming from a humble Methodist church:

“…the entire congregation stopped singing and turned to stare at me. Their astonishment was plainly written on their faces. Blushing, I sat on the rear pew.

“…the preacher, the moment the last strain died away, rushed forward to welcome me. It was a great moment, he said; and he wondered whether I should do them all the honour of attending a little feast and ceremony they were about to hold… my acceptance gave him genuine pleasure.

“I was ushered into the hall with great ceremony, and immediately sat at the head table as guest of honour. I was dressed casually while they were all in their finest; I had come idly, drawn by their singing, while for them it was an important day; and yet, purely by virtue of my race, I was the guest of honour…It spoke eloquently, I thought, of the deep longing of the blacks to be recognized and treated as fully human by the whites for whom, despite themselves, they had a kind of abject respect…

“…Then came an address to the audience by the man who would have been guest of honour had I not arrived.

“…First he extended a welcome to me, and said how honoured he was – they all were – that I should attend. But it was obvious to all, he continued, that I had neither been born in South Africa nor lived there long, or else I should not be sitting where I was now. Just let me stay a few years, however, and I should be indistinguishable from all the others. Turning to me, he appealed to me in Zulu to go home, if I wished to remain a decent man.”

Luckily for Daniels, he did leave Natal soon thereafter, one day before a visit from the South African Special Branch of the police, for apparent violations of apartheid.

There is so much more here: the incompetence and vacuity of the World Health Organization, the corrosiveness of unearned wealth, the arrogance of evangelical missionaries, the usefulness (at times) of self-delusion, and more.

Daniels often says of his career that he doesn’t know whether the proper response is to laugh or cry. As if to prove the point, the stories of his time working at a psychiatric institution (which by themselves justify reading this book) are side-splitting, but nevertheless cause the author to conclude that “We were playing on the shores of the ocean of human misery, whose depths were still uncharted and indeed unfathomable.”

One thought on “Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Skeptical Doctor

  1. Pingback: Antipodean canard | A dose of Dalrymple

Comments are closed.