Doing better, looking worse

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 28 September 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:720
  1. Colin Douglas, doctor and novelist.
  1. Edinburgh

    The portrayal of doctors in art, literature, and television

    In Luke Fildes' memorable Victorian painting The Doctor a child lies ill. Her father looks helplessly on, while a far more imposing male figure gazes intently at his patient. The doctor broods, and in truth there was very little more he could do; we know now that he was almost as helpless as the parent, only six feet and three or four social classes away. So his manner is all, and Fildes captures it for ever: the furrowed brow; the hand propping the firm bearded chin; the calm, concerned authority.

    For all their professional powerlessness, whole generations of our predecessors enjoyed similar esteem in the media of their day. The doctors of 18th and 19th century fiction offer many more heroes than villains: Tobias Smollett's ebullient protagonist in Roderick Random; the kindly Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch—idealistic and progressive, marrying upwards (in an age when medical men still used the tradesman's entrance) then driven to commercial practice by his wife's extravagance. And in Charles Dickens's Bleak House the decent young Dr Woodcourt—an altruist in the slums …

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