Silver Lining

R. G. G. PHICE serves PUNCH as critic and humorist and is a frequent contributor to Accent on Living.

It is easy for newpaper readers to feel selfish delight when they read cheerful pieces about the progress of curative medicine and forget that it is only the tireless ingenuity in the invention of new diseases that keeps the medical and pharmaceutical boys ahead of the game. They have taken some nasty knocks since Jenner slashed their income from smallpox-treatment fees. This century it is only the brilliance of such happy strokes of popularization as cardiac infarction, protruded disk, anxiety state, and night starvation that has kept doctors and drug makers up the greasy pole of the income table.

At one time, pessimists thought sulfonamides and antibiotics would reduce doctors to the status of village blacksmiths. Not a bit of it! Antibiotic-resistant viruses were discovered right on time, and before long even less domesticated micro-organisms may be brought back from space, particularly when some of the less enthusiastically hygienic nations get into the act. And there is another direction in which advance has been dramatic. The more weapons against infective disease that the spoilsports discover, the more psychosomatic conditions are brought in to fill the financial gap — more than fill it, in fact. The good old family physician might cure a pneumonia in less than a dozen visits. The specialist in health-through-conversation can take as long as the traffic will bear and make patients come to him instead of having to turn out into the snowy night.

One of the brightest strokes of imagination of recent years was drug allergy. You cured the complaint but still had the patient to treat for the effects of the cure. Probably some forward-looking lab is busy working on skin conditions produced by fear of being allergic to antibiotics.

As any issue of the Reader’s Digest will show, the doctors and the drug houses suffer a pretty steady stream of defeats. They have to keep on their toes if cures aren’t to outnumber diseases, with appalling economic consequences. It is easy enough for patients to take the troubles of their advisers and suppliers with unsympathetic grins. But medicine and surgery and miscellaneous therapeutics and putting minute quantities of powerful compounds in capsules and thinking of fresh claims to make for them and building new wings onto hospitals play a major part in a national economy. Any serious danger to disease is more than just a headache for a handful of corporations and occupational groups; it is a blow at a country’s financial solar plexus.

I have mentioned viruses of stellar or planetary origin; but there is, of course, a danger that astronauts might find an elixir of life, or a universal nostrum just growing wild, or even some kind of plankton that cured the common cold. If this seems unlikely, remember that the medieval barber-surgeon pottered around with his lancet, his bowl, and perhaps a pouch of leeches, never realizing, happy man, that not far ahead in terms of historical time Pasteur lay in wait. I don’t know enough about insurance to say whether future-minded men and institutions are already taking out policies against the discovery of a simple and cheap cure for schizophrenia or arthritis or mother fixation or influenza.

What lines are the creative people going to be working on in the next few years? One is certainly going to be linking vague but credible symptoms to inescapable environmental conditions. We have already seen some ingenious use of motoring and television. However much driving and viewing may constrict stomach muscles, strain eyes, distort digestive processes, and allow fat to silt up arteries for lack of exercise, there is little fear that people are going to give them up. But modern life consists of more than cars and TV sets. Tower blocks can be accused of leading to eardrum degeneration, owing to constant use of high-speed elevators, without any risk of a return to lots of little low-built homes in gardens. Air travel may produce spinal tensions due to boredom, but flying is here to stay. Children need not be left out: obsession with space exploration could lead to a pediatric gold mine — reverse numeracy, where the sufferer counts backward. Man is going to go on taking pharmaceutical products, so there is a profitable future in the side effects arising from consumption of whatever it is capsules are made of.

The old family doctor who would tackle anything is being superceded by narrow specialists. This has a profitable result: each consultant can blame the previous consultant’s cures — for example, a malfunctioning digestive system can be attributed to defects in an ophthalmologist’s prescription. Psychiatrists, whose prosperity is built on persuading patients that they are not guilty and transferring the guilt to nonpatients, often now in the family vault, can make good use of disease phobias caused by excessively elaborate checkups — caused by almost anything medical, in fact, except, of course, heavy bills. On this point doctors stand shoulder to shoulder, and the highest standard of medical ethics is maintained.

Looking into the future, what does the prophetic pathologist see? Not, surely, a race of happy gods, unanxious and committed to a healthful diet. The prophet is, after all, human himself, and it is man’s innate, and often apparently unfounded, optimism that has kept his head above water. Nature, he must feel, generally has something profitable up its sleeve. There is, for example, a rumor of a new ice age, and cold weather means chilblains.