The physician’s progress

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.

17 thoughts on “The physician’s progress

  1. Seymour Clufley

    I’d like to email the people who run this site, but can’t find an address anywhere.

    It regards a claim TD made in 1999 about literary classics being rejected as “elitist” – I’ve been unable to find any mention of this outside his essay (All Our Pomp of Yesterday).

    Also, it would be really great to have a forum on this site! It’s so hard to find a place on the internet to chat with like-minded people who believe in civilisation and want to discuss its current state…

  2. Clinton

    Hi, Seymour. Gavin (whose comments you may have seen on the site) has offered to build a forum, but we didn’t think there would be much interest. But after seeing your message, maybe there is.

    Dear readers, would anyone else out there be interested in a forum?

    What exactly was your question about TD’s comment on literary classics?

  3. Seymour Clufley

    Hi Clinton,

    It’s in the essay “All Our Pomp of Yesterday”:

    “When the publisher of a collection of literary classics recently offered to donate a set of these works (including those of Dickens and Shakespeare) to every secondary school in the nation, our educational authorities turned down the offer on the grounds that it would be elitist to accept it, and the literature was not ‘relevant’ to pupils’ lives.”

    If anything is an example of Marxist destruction of civilisation in Britain, this is it. Yet I can find no other record of the occurrence. I’m not saying TD made it up, merely that I’d like to know more about what happened. It was 12 years ago, sadly, so my search will probably be fruitless.

    As for the forum, I was inspired to ask because I recently got a thrashing on a liberal right-on forum when I tried to defend the British class system. In my opinion, you can argue a point ad infinitum but if people don’t want to get the point, they won’t. They will find umpteen ways to miss the point. It’s astonishing how good people are at doing this.

    The values TD espouses are extremely rare in today’s culture. People talk of “civilisation” but are unwilling to admit that this requires acknowledging when somebody fails to live up to the standard. The modern concept of civilisation really amounts to “open-minded and have an iPod”. To speak of “refinement” is to mark oneself out as a snob, and therefore wrong. Even the upper-class don’t want to be upper-class anymore, and I believe that has had extremely damaging effects on our culture.

    So people who believe in refinement are screwed, really. There is no place for us, either in the real world (Britain’s museums are now festooned with on-site Starbuck’s cafes) or on the Internet. I can think of no better place for such people to meet than a website dedicated to Theodore Dalrymple. I think even our enemies would agree on that.

    On the other hand, I want to discuss the need for refinement. Perhaps there is NO need for it? Lots of people seem happy enough in today’s world. Do we need to know Latin anymore? What virtue is there, truly, in avoiding glottal stops? What’s the point of a class system obsessed with how people speak and what interests they have?

    As you can see, I could talk for ages. I have many questions, but nowhere to ask them. There’s the Daily Telegraph forum but that is right-wing without being conservative. We need somewhere that people can discuss the concerns they have about modern society. Even if it’s not all bad, there’s a lot to be concerned about.

    Apart from anything else, there is no dedicated place on the Internet to discuss TD except this blog, and comment threads are not as good as fora.

    One idea: the forum could have a section where a TD quotation is selected and people discuss it for a week. Then the next week, another quotation (but the old thread remains open, naturally).

    There is so much to be explored!

  4. Seymour Clufley

    Some more thoughts on a forum…

    I’d also suggest a policy that posters must use proper English at all times. I suspect TD would approve of nothing less.

    I’m not sure if there’d be a need for separate forum sections (apart from the weekly quote thing) to inspire debate, but here are some ideas for sections:

    INTRODUCTIONS (for people to introduce themselves)
    DALRYMPLE’S BOOKS (sub-section for each book)
    SOCIETY (immigration etc.)
    PSYCHOLOGY (discussing the human condition)
    MORALITY AND BEAUTY (discussing the idea of civilisation)

    Even if there is not much reception to the idea now, you may find that once a forum is installed, people realise they have a lot of use for it.

  5. Jaxon

    Hmmm Dalrymple does seem to make claims like that, that seem a bit far fetched, just two examples (if I’m not misreading) from the same essay – What We Have To Lose

    “The word civilization itself now rarely appears in academic texts or in journalism without the use of ironical quotation marks, as if civilization were a mythical creature, like the Loch Ness monster or the Abominable Snowman, and to believe in it were a sign of philosophical naïveté.”

    “The ultimate object of the deconstructionism that has swept the academy like an epidemic has been civilization itself, as the narcissists within the academy try to find a theoretical justification for their own revolt against civilized restraint. And thus the obvious truth—that it is necessary to repress, either by law or by custom, the permanent possibility in human nature of brutality and barbarism—never finds its way into the press or other media of mass communication.”

    …never finds it’s way…?? I don’t really mind so much… but people eager not to hear his message, latch on to these things as if it proves him beyond the pale – I don’t think you can ever avoid that mind you.

    A forum could be good, I don’t know if I’d use it, I have phases. I did have this notion though, that if enough people were interested they could make a small cash contribution (to my account of course… kidding) to a joint fund, say… whereby, using a forum, we could plan/design a display using selected quotes from Dalrymple for one of these

    pay some poor sucker to cycle it round the heart of London, and maybe have another person (student doing Documentary course?) tracking him with a video camera – (partly for abuse/assault deterrent, and possibly for a youtube documentary.

    Maybe that’s mad, maybe it’s illegal, I don’t know, that’s the point of a forum I guess, if it doesn’t take, it doesn’t take. If it’s a modest idea and it fails, no great loss – if it seems to work – maybe aim higher etc etc etc

  6. Clinton

    Steve and I are considering the idea of a forum a bit more seriously now that several of you have indicated your interest. Especially since our site is so often graced with the participation of a professional web developer (Gavin, are you out there?). Generally speaking, we sometimes struggle to keep up with TD’s writings, approving comments, etc (sorry for my delay in approving your latest, Seymour!) due to the general demands of daily life, but if we could integrate the forum into the existing site and turn management of it over to Gavin, maybe this is something w ewill do. We will decide soon.

    Seymour, I am not aware of the episode you discuss. Jaxon, I do think it is inevitable that someone who writes as much as TD will make a somewhat-imprecise statement from time to time, and I would caution against taking every word too literally.

  7. Seymour Clufley

    Clinton, I’m glad you’re considering a forum. I think it would be a great resource. As I said before, even there isn’t much response to the idea just now, people may take a look at it and see interesting threads and want to contribute!

    If you are in touch with Dr Dalrymple again, could you please ask him about the “literary classics” thing? It’s from 12 years ago but he may recall details which would enable me to research it further.

  8. Jay C

    How do you define “conservative”? I would agree that support of free markets alone is not sufficient. Market fundamentalism can act as a tool for further encouragement of selfishness.

    The Telegraph though does appear to me as conservative, at least by modern standards. It may not advocate sodomy laws, a return to propertied suffrage and a politically powerful monarchy as Tories believed in many years ago. But it’s well to the Right on the current continuum of discourse in Europe; it supports royalty, the other traditions of our constitution, strong (but not brutal) law and order, the special relationship, Israel and ordered liberty. It has positive coverage of people of faith, in most cases Judeo-Christian faith. Its arts coverage maintains many of the old standards of discrimination between better and worse. I’ve rarely seen the sort of anti-family, anti-“elite” cultural Marxism that the leftist press here live by proliferating. How much more right wing would you require it to be before it counted as conservative to you?

  9. Gavin

    Hi. I don’t see every thread on here – hadn’t seen this one.

    Yes, I still think a forum is a good idea – there is such a large amount of Dalrymple work to discuss and he writes about the most important issue in life: essentially, how to live.

    I am busy, and going to get busier. I also go in phases – sometimes posting, then not. However.. it wouldn’t take me long to set up a forum or moderate it. I will get back to you.

  10. Seymour Clufley

    Actually, thinking about it, I would really like to moderate a forum dedicated to Theodore Dalrymple. It’d be an honour and I think I could create sections that would inspire debate. If other people come forward whom you’d prefer for the task, that’s fine, but please bear me in mind!

  11. Gavin

    Folks, there is now a forum up over at to complement (and compliment!) Skeptical Doctor.

    The main thing this brings is the ability for people to start their own threads. I hope you like it and look forward to any contributions you may wish to make.


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