Filler One hundred years ago

Doctors and duellists

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 09 November 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1005

The object of the duello is said to be the healing of wounded honour. To try to cure a wound of the spirit, or rather the temper, by a scratch on the skin savours of homoeopathy, but may perhaps be justified by the surgical principle of relieving tension by incision. Owing possibly to climatic influences, honour is more vulnerable in some countries than in others; hence there is more frequent need of curative scarification. It is one of those contradictions in human nature which puzzle the philosopher, that honour of the most morbidly delicate character in certain respects is in others often of a robustness which makes it insensitive to the grief of a wound. When honour has been satisfied by an exchange of scratches and it comes to paying the doctor, the duellist does not always show that punctilious regard for his own dignity which led him to seek vengeance for an affront. … A medical practitioner in France was asked to be present at a duel in his professional capacity. He got up early, travelled some miles, flamed the swords, and ministered to his client who was slightly wounded. … Some months passed, and, having heard nothing about the matter, he sent in his bill, the amount of which was only fifty francs. The patient apparently found it convenient to reply through his wife, and the lady's letter deserves reproduction as a “document” painfully illustrative of human meanness. After some preliminary sentences she goes on: “For the rest, I am told that between men there is a question of delicacy which forbids even the slightest appearance of trade in such a matter, and doctors, no more than the seconds, are brought on the ground by money. Not being versed in such things, however, if you persist in your claim, I shall, to my great regret, be obliged to leave to others the duty of settling this fine point with you. But I have no doubt that, after having thought over the considerations which I have taken the liberty to place before you, you will understand the case without the least difficulty, and you are too intelligent a man to make it necessary for me to discuss with you the useless treatment of an insignificant scratch.” … The idea that a doctor is a philanthropist, who should think himself amply rewarded for trouble and loss of time by the mere joy of altruistic labour, is tolerably widespread. But it is new to us that he is expected not only to work for nothing, but to think it a privilege to be allowed to give his professional services to persons having no claim whatever upon him who choose to put what they call their honour to the touch of a sword prick. (BMJ 1905;i:672)

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