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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

The memoir of an opium eater

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 20 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2010
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    A friend of mine who lived for a time in America started every conversation at a party by saying, “Hello, I’m A . . . I hate my parents, don’t you?”

    He never knew his opening gambit to draw anything but assent, he said, suggesting that filial piety, like fortitude, is no longer considered a virtue these days.

    How different from Reverend George Crabbe’s charming and reverent memoir of his father, the Reverend George Crabbe, published in 1834, two years after Crabbe senior’s death.

    Crabbe senior was apprenticed to a surgeon but preferred poetry as a vocation to medicine. Nevertheless he continued all the days of his life to minister medically to the sick poor, even after he took holy orders.

    He had been plucked from obscurity by Edmund Burke, to whom he had sent some of his verses. It is astonishing that in those days eminent politicians could also act as literary critics: later in life, Crabbe sent some verses to the cabinet minister Charles James Fox for his suggestions and amendments (which he accepted).

    After his apprenticeship Crabbe had hoped to walk the wards in London, but his funds were insufficient. His attempt at a medical career almost ended in disaster when his landlady discovered a dead baby in his room that he intended to dissect. As she had lost a baby of her own a few days before, she suspected Crabbe of being a resurrectionist—that is to say a body snatcher. It was only when he was able to satisfy her that the baby was not in fact hers that she agreed not to call the police. The memoir remains silent as to how Crabbe came by his baby for dissection.

    Perhaps the most famous, or notorious, passage in the memoir is the revelation that Crabbe was for much of his life an opium addict: “He became subject to vertigoes, which he thought indicative of a tendency to apoplexy; and was bled rather profusely, which only increased his symptoms.” Fortunately, help was at hand: “The late Dr Club was sent for, who, after a little examination, saw through the case with great judgment. ‘There is nothing the matter with your head,’ he observed, ‘nor any apoplectic tendency; let the digestive organs bear the whole blame; you must take opiates.’”

    The results were excellent: “From that time his health began to amend rapidly . . . and to a constant but slightly increasing dose of opium may be attributed his long and generally healthy life.”

    And that is the last we hear of opium in the memoir, despite the fact that Crabbe senior later suffered from trigeminal neuralgia. Like Wilberforce, the great campaigner against slavery, he made no song or dance over his opium; he experienced no romantic ecstasies and suffered no romantic agonies because of it. That all came later, with the next literary generation, of Coleridge and De Quincey.

    Crabbe junior rather touchingly always refers to his father in the book as Mr Crabbe. I remember the days when old spouses used to call each other Mr and Mrs, with a respect that was equal to their affection. Their marriages were always happy ones.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2010

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