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The History And Heroes Of Medicine
by [?]

[Footnote: By J. Rutherfurd Russell, M.D.]

In this volume, Dr. Russell has not merely aimed at the production of a book that might be serviceable to the Faculty, by which the history of its own art is not at all sufficiently studied, but has aspired to the far more difficult success of writing a history of medicine which shall be readable to all who care for true history–that history, namely, in which not merely growth and change are represented, but the secret supplies and influences as well, which minister to the one and occasion the other. If the difficulty has been greater (although with his evidently wide sympathies and keen insight into humanity we doubt if it has), the success is the more honourable; for a success it certainly is. The partially biographical plan on which he has constructed his work has no doubt aided in the accomplishment of this purpose; for it is much easier to present the subject in its human relations, when its history is given in connexion with the lives of those who were most immediately associated with it. But it would be a great mistake to conclude from this, that it is the less a history of the art itself; for no art or science has life in itself, apart from the minds which foresee, discover, and verify it. Whatever point in its progress it may have reached, it will there remain until a new man appears, whose new questions shall illicit new replies from nature–replies which are the essential food of the science, by which it lives, grows, and makes itself a history.

Nor must our readers suppose that because the book is readable, it is therefore slight, either in material or construction. Much reading and research have provided the material, while real thought and argument have superintended the construction. Nor is it by any means without the adornment that a poetic temperament and a keen sense of humour can supply.

Naturally, the central life in the book is that of Lord Bacon, the man who brought out of his treasures things both new and old. Up to him the story gradually leads from the prehistoric times of Aesculapius, the pathway first becoming plainly visible in the life and labours of Hippocrates. His fine intellect and powers of acute observation afforded the material necessary for the making of a true physician. The Greek mind, partly, perhaps, from its artistic tendencies, seems to have been peculiarly impatient of incomplete forms, and therefore, to have much preferred the construction of a theory from the most shadowy material, to the patient experiment and investigation necessary for the procuring of the real substance; and Hippocrates, not knowing how to advance to a theory by rational experiment, and too honest to invent one, assumes the traditional theories, founded on the vaguest and most obtrusive generalizations. Those which his experience taught him to reject, were adopted and maintained by Galen and all who followed him for centuries, the chief instance of progress being only the substitution by the Arabians of some of the milder medicines now in use, for the terrible and often fatal drugs employed by the Greek and Roman physicians. The fanciful classification of diseases into four kinds–hot, cold, moist and dry, with the corresponding arbitrary classification of remedies to be administered by contraries, continued to be the only recognized theory of medicine for many centuries after the Christian era.

But Lord Bacon, amongst other branches of knowledge which he considers ill-followed, makes especial mention of medicine, which he would submit to the same rules of observation and experiment laid down by him for the advancement of learning in general. With regard to it, as with regard to the discovery of all the higher laws of nature, he considers “that men have made too untimely a departure, and too remote a recess from particulars.” Men have hurried to conclusions, and then argued from them as from facts. Therefore let us have no traditional theories, and make none for ourselves but such as are revealed in the form of laws to the patient investigator, who has “straightened and held fast Proteus, that he might be compelled to change his shapes,” and so reveal his nature. Hence one of the aspects in which Lord Bacon was compelled to appear was that of a destroyer of what preceded. In this he resembled Cardan and Paracelsus who went before him, and who like him pulled down, but could not, like him, build up. He resembled them, however, in the possession of another element of character, namely, that poetic imagination which looks abroad into the regions of possibilities, and foresees or invents. But in the case of the charlatan, the vaguest suggestions of his mind in its favourite mood, is adopted as a theory all but proved, if not as a direct revelation to the favoured individual; while the true thinker seeks but an hypothesis corresponding in some measure to facts already discovered, in order that he may have the suggestion of new experiments and investigations in the course of his attempts to verify or disprove the hypothesis. Lord Bacon considered hypothesis invaluable in the discovery of truth, but he only used it as a board upon which to write his questions to nature; or, to use another figure, hypothesis with him is as the next stepping-stone in the swollen river, which he supposes to be here or there, and so feels for with his staff. But it must be proved before it be regarded as a law, and greatly corroborated before it be even adopted as a theory. Cardan and Paracelsus were destroyers and mystics only; they destroyed on the earth that they might build in the air: Lord Bacon united both characters in the philosopher. He looked abroad into the regions of the unknown, whence all knowledge comes; he called wonder the seed of knowledge; but he would build nowhere but on the earth–on the firm land of ascertained truth. That which kept him right was his practical humanity. It was for the sake of delivering men from the ills of life, by discovering the laws of the elements amidst which that life must be led, that he laboured and thought. This object kept him true, made him able to discover the very laws of discovery; brought him so far into rapport with the heart of nature herself, that, like a physical prophet, his seeing could outspeed his knowing, and behold a law–dimly, it is true, but yet behold it–long before his intellect, which had to build bridges and find straw to make the bricks, could dare to affirm its approach to the same conclusion. Truth to humanity made him true to fact; and truth to fact made him true in theory.