Views & Reviews Past Caring

Doctors in Dickens

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e1193 (Published 22 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1193
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}ntlworld.com

Everyone has a favourite character from Dickens, whether it’s a selfless hero like David Copperfield, a rapacious villain like Fagin, or a half crazed eccentric like Miss Havisham. But anyone with great expectations of finding a likeable medical character in Dickens’s novels will be sorely disappointed.

Dickens depicted about 50 doctors in his books. But, with one or two exceptions, his medical men range from bumbling fools to negligent crooks. At best, Dickens’s doctors stand by helplessly and mop a clammy brow as a patient expires from fever or consumption. At worst, they conspire in insurance swindles and abet murder. His antipathy to the medical profession is hardly surprising.

Born 200 years ago into modest origins, Dickens experienced at first hand the degradation and suffering of London’s poor: his family was imprisoned for debt while he was forced to work in a blacking factory. Never forgetting his own hard times, he used his observational skills and writing talents as a journalist and novelist to expose the bleak house of Victorian Britain.

Dickens was a tireless campaigner for social reform. He supported Great Ormond Street Hospital and numbered several doctors among his mutual friends, including the founding editor of the Lancet Thomas Wakley. But throughout his life Dickens maintained a healthy scepticism towards orthodox doctors and conventional medicine. Instead he favoured mesmerism, phrenology, and hydrotherapy, and befriended mavericks such as John Conolly, who campaigned to end restraints in asylums, and John Elliotson, who had to resign as professor of medicine at London University when two sisters he had used in mesmerism experiments were denounced as frauds.

Dickens wrote before the advent of antisepsis or antibiotics, when doctors were ignorant of the causes of most infectious diseases and powerless to prevent or treat the vast majority of ailments, so his contempt for standard medicine is understandable. A master of comic monikers, he expressed his scorn in names like Sir Tumley Snuffim, Mr Slasher, Dr Kutankumagen, and Dr Fee, and physicians, surgeons, and medical students are all ruthlessly satirised by his endlessly busy pen.

In The Pickwick Papers, the medical student Bob Sawyer cheerily declares: “There is nothing like a dissection to give one an appetite.” In Martin Chuzzlewit, the medical assistant Lewsome supplies Jonas Chuzzlewit with poison to murder his father in return for cancelling some debts. And in Dombey and Son, pompous physician Dr Parker Peps is so intent on making an impression that he continually confuses Mrs Dombey’s name. Called to attend to the birth of Dombey’s “Son,” Peps announces that Mrs Dombey shows “a certain degree of languor and a general absence of elasticity.” Minutes later she dies.

Only Allan Woodcourt, the lowly, impoverished surgeon in Bleak House, shows true compassion as he treats the poor amid the squalor of Victorian London. After his marriage to the book’s narrator, Esther Summerson, she admits: “We are not rich in the bank,” but adds: “I never walk out with my husband, but I hear the people bless him. I never go into a house of any degree, but I hear his praises, or see them in grateful eyes. I never lie down at night, but I know that in the course of that day he has alleviated pain, and soothed some fellow-creature in the time of need.” And she asks: “Is not this to be rich?”

Plainly Dickens felt so.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1193

Footnotes

  • Sources: Smithers DW, Dickens’s doctors. Pergamon Press, 1979; Eysell J, A medical companion to Dickens’s fiction. Peter Lang Publishing, 2005; Dickens C, The Pickwick Papers; Martin Chuzzlewit; Dombey and Son; Bleak House.