Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Now I’m a believer

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 29 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3982
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    When I was a student I attended a public faith healing meeting. I went as a joke, but what I saw angered me. The American evangelist—to my eyes obviously a crook—told the hopeless cases assembled there that if they believed deeply and sincerely enough they would be cured. They weren’t, and therefore it was their own fault. I found it cruel, repellent, and grossly exploitative.

    I grew less ill disposed to faith healing when I attended the annual ceremony of the Black Christ of Esquipulas in Guatemala many years later. There the halt, lame, and paralytic were promised nothing, and there was no implication that if they failed to be cured it was because of a deficient faith.

    From the rational point of view it was no doubt absurd that paralysed people should be lined up to be sprinkled with holy water from a plastic bucket by a priest wielding a sponge on the end of a stick; but the evident joy with which they received the blessing was moving to behold. And which of us is never in need of irrational consolation?

    Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), the great French surgeon and physiologist who won the Nobel prize for his work on tissue culture, was reconverted from 19th century rationalism to the religious faith of his childhood by what he saw at Lourdes. He went there in 1903 in a sceptical frame of mind to investigate the so called cures. He regarded favourable reports, such as that rather surprisingly from the pen of Emile Zola, as unscientific and unfounded. But after his death a manuscript was found among his papers and published in 1950 as The Journey to Lourdes.

    The case that convinced him that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the materialist philosophy was that of a girl called Marie Ferrand. Both her parents had died from pulmonary tuberculosis, and she herself had had the disease. She also developed severe tuberculous peritonitis. Carrel examined her shortly before she visited the grotto at Lourdes and was convinced that she was very close to death.

    At the grotto a “miracle” happened. The peritonitis disappeared in a few minutes, and Marie, though still weak from inanition, knew that she was cured. Carrel had no doubts about it.

    Marie had been given up for dead by all her doctors. The treatment of tuberculous peritonitis at that time was laparotomy, but the surgeons had decided that she was too weak to withstand the operation. Reading Carrel’s account reminded me of episodes in my life that I had all but forgotten.

    I was working in a distant country in which tuberculosis was so prevalent that everything was considered TB until proved otherwise. Tuberculous peritonitis was common, and in those desperate cases that did not respond to pharmacological treatment, or where it could not be administered, we “let the air in” by laparotomy. It worked and saved many a life. The improvement was—well, miraculous.

    An old wives’ tale? I doubt that a double blind trial has ever been done. But if it were, and the results were negative, I should continue to believe in “letting the air in.” Like Carrel, I have faith.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3982

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