Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science


With other Addresses and Essays. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. Boston : Ticknor & Fields. 12mo.
THIS volume contains seven occasional addresses and essays, written at various periods between 1842 and 1860. The subjects of which it treats are “ Homœopathy, and its Kindred Delusions,” “ Puerperal Fever, as a Private Pestilence,” “ The Position and Prospects of the Medical Student,” “ The Duties of the Physician,” — a Valedictory Address to the Medical Graduates of Harvard University, — “ The Mechanism of Vital Actions,” “ Some more Recent Views of Homoeopathy,” and “ Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science.” They are characterized by extensive information, fertile thought, strong convictions, keen wit, sound sense, and unflinching intellectual courage and self-trust. They are valuable contributions to the literature of the medical profession, and at the same time have that peculiar fascination which distinguishes all the productions of Dr. Holmes’s ingenious and opulent mind. The style is clear, crisp, sparkling, abounding in originalities of verbal combination and felicities of descriptive phrase. In its movement, it bears the marks of a kind of mental impatience of the processes of slower, more dogged, and more cautious intellects, natural to a keen, bright, and swift intelligence, desirous of flashing the results of its operation in the briefest and most brilliant expression. The argument, though founded on premises which have been gathered by careful observation and study, often disregards the forms of the logic whose spirit it obeys, and, by its frequent use of analogy and illustration, may sometimes dazzle and confuse the minds it seeks to convince. In regard to opponents, it is not content with mere dialectic victory, but insinuates the subtle sting of wit to vex and irritate the sore places of defeat and humiliation.
The reputation which Dr. Holmes enjoys, as one of the most popular poets and prose-writers of the day, has made the public overlook the fact that literature has been the recreation of a life of which medical science has been the business. By far the larger portion of his time, for the last thirty years, has been devoted to his profession. Perhaps the value and validity of the conclusions he records in this volume may be questioned from the very circumstance that he expresses them in the lucid and vigorous style of an accomplished man of letters. “People,” says Macaulay, “are loath to admit that the same man can unite very different kinds of excellence. It is soothing to envy to believe that what is splendid cannot be solid, that what is clear cannot be profound. Very slowly was the public brought to acknowledge that Mansfield was a great jurist, and that Burke was a great master of political science. Montagu was a brilliant rhetorician, and therefore, though he had ten times Harley’s capacity for the driest parts of business, was represented by detractors as a superficial, prating pretender.” Indeed, that peculiar vital energy which is the characteristic of genius carries the man of genius cheerfully through masses of drudgery which would dismay and paralyze the vigor of industrious mediocrity. The present volume, bright as it is in expression, is full of evidences that the author has submitted to the austerest requirements of his laborious profession; and if his opinions generally coincide with those which have been somewhat reluctantly adopted by the most eminent physicians of the age, it is certain that he has not jumped to his conclusions, but has reached them by patient and independent thought, study, and observation.
The courage which Dr. Holmes displays throughout this volume is of a refreshing kind. His frank, bold utterance of his convictions not only subjects him to the adverse criticism of a numerous and powerful body of able men in his own profession, but brings him into direct hostility with many persons who, outside of his profession, are among the warmest lovers of his literary genius. Some of the most intelligent admirers and appreciators of “The Autocrat” and “The Professor” are adherents of Homœopathy; and of Homœopathy Dr. Holmes is not only a scientific, but a sarcastic opponent. He both acknowledges and satirizes the fact, that intellectual men, eminent in all professions but that of medicine, are champions of the system he derides; but he does not the less spare one bitter word or cutting fleer against the system itself, By thus daring, provoking, and defying opposition both to his professional and literary reputation, he seems to us to indicate a real, if somewhat impatient love of truth, He valorously invites and courts the malicious sharpness of the most unfriendly criticism. Some people may call by the name of conceit this honest and unwithholding devotion of his whole powers to what he deems the cause of truth; but, we must be allowed to object, conceit is commonly anxious for the safety of the individual, while Dr. Holmes intrepidly exposes his individuality to the fire of hostile cannon, which are prevented from being discharged against each other only by the lucky thought that they can do more execution by being converged upon him. Had he appeared as an intelligent, knowing, and efficient controversialist on the side of the traditions of his profession, his wholesale denunciation of quackery, vulgar or genteel, might be referred to conceit; had he turned state’s evidence against the accredited deceptions of his own profession, and gone over entirely to the enthusiasts who think that medicine is not an experimental science, but a series of hap-hazard hits at the occult laws of disease, he might be accused of conceit; but we think the charge is ridiculously false as directed against a man who boldly puts his professional and literary fame at risk in order to advance the cause of reason, learning, and common sense. Nobody can justly appreciate Holmes who does not perceive an impersonal earnestness and insight beneath the play of his provoking personal wit. We admit that he makes enemies needlessly; but all fair minds must still concede that even his petulances of sarcasm are but eccentric utterances of a love of truth which has its source in the deepest and gravest sentiments of his nature.
The object of Dr. Holmes’s volume is to bring physicians and the people over whom they hold dominion into sensible relations with each other. A beautiful scorn of deception and humbug shines through His clear exposition of the facts and laws of disease. A high sense of the duties and dignity of the medical profession animates every precept he enforces on the attention of those who are to deal with disease. Like all the advanced thinkers of his profession, he relies, in the art of curing, more on Nature than on drugs ; but in thus assisting to dispel the notion that the prescriptions either of the regular doctor or the irregular empiric possess the power to heal, he injures the quack only to aid the good physician. The strength of the quack consists in the two-fold ignorance of the sick, — in their ignorance of the superficial character of their common ailments, and in their ignorance of the deadly nature of their exceptional diseases. Panaceas, seeming to cure the former, are eagerly taken for the latter; but it is well known that they do not cure in either case. Physicians are tempted into quackery by the desire to dislodge ignorant pretenders from bedsides which it is their proper function to attend, and in ministering to sick imaginations they are too apt to pour a needless amount of nauseous medicine into sick bodies. If people, while in health, would heed the honest advice which Dr. Holmes gives: in this volume, they would force physicians to be less hypocritical in their management of them when they are ill, and they would destroy the wide-spread evil of quackery under which the world now groans.