Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor.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.
When you laugh out loud while reading on the London Underground other passengers are inclined to edge away from you – which is one good reason for doing it, of course. The other good reason is that the book you are reading is funny, and recently I did so while reading Books Reviewed, a collection of reviews published in The Observer newspaper by J. C. Squire during the second decade of the last century.
Sir John Collings Squire (1884 – 1958) was one of those regrettably many literary men who were inclined to drink too much. Now more or less forgotten, he was in his day a critic of such eminence that his rule over the literary world was known as the Squirearchy. He was a wonderful prose stylist, and if I had known him earlier in my life I should have used him as a model.
The review that made me laugh was titled Glands. It is one of the funniest reviews I have ever read. It begins:
The book before me is entitled The Glands Regulating Personality, and its author is Dr. Louis Berman of Columbia University. This is not the kind of book which I normally review, or have any scientific competence to discuss… Finding the phrase, “A man’s chief gift to his child is his internal secretion composition,” I knew I must go through with it.
Here, beyond doubt, was one more of these men with an explanation, satisfactory to himself, of everything that exists. So through thyroid and pituitary, pineal, adrenal and thymus I pursued my way, marvelling at one of the most remarkable medleys of erudition, illogicality, lack of taste, disinterested passion, complacency and bad English that I have seen…
Squire quotes some of Berman’s larger claims for the glands:
He compares them to the Directors of a Large Corporation: he might almost call them our Glandlords… “Masculinity,” he says, “may be described as a stable, constant state in the organism of lime salts, and the feminine as an unstable variable state of lime salts.”
Squire tells us that Dr Berman proposes a glandular theory of history:
He uses Mr. Strachey’s account of Florence Nightingale for a ruthless analysis of the glands that made her what she was; Caesar, Napoleon and Nietzsche are other of his specimens. He regrets that they did not live later, so that science could have rectified them.
Indeed, Dr Berman proposed a glandular utopia:
He looks forward – and, indeed, reading his book, one is tempted at times to share in this Larger Hope – to a time when statesmen will make it their business to raise the the general level of intelligence by a “judicious use of endocrine extracts.”
Squire then says something that has a certain resonance today:
The frontiers of psychology and physiology are infested by hosts of these ill-balanced persons who get hold of a little truth and turn it into an idol.
My copy of the book is inscribed by Squire to his mother, to whom he owed even more than a man usually owes to his mother. She was abandoned by Squire’s father when her son was young. She ran a boarding house in Portsmouth in order to pay for his education. I, too, am grateful to her.