Even in our era of scientific, and sometimes miraculous, medicine, we relish hilarious portrayals of the doctor as a pompous and inept buffoon. The durability of this stock character, known since antiquity, is due not just to the fact that satire is funny. There is a larger social purpose—the power that doctors wield, specious or real, must be tempered with humility. No one was better at taking the medical profession ‘down a notch’ than Moliére. We will explore, in a series of articles, the milieu of medicine in seventeenth century Europe, the making of Moliere, and the substance of his medical satires, the most famous every written.
It is reasonable to assume that man’s earliest efforts to cure disease were ritualistic invocations by family, supplications sans substance. Success or failure was attributable to the mystery of nature or the will of a god. Once ‘doctoring’ became an occupation, doctors were faced with a dilemma: credit for success implied liability for failure. Blaming the patient might parry criticism: ‘If only they’d come to us sooner, or hadn’t done this or would’ve done that’.
But doctors, being clever by nature, had a remedy for the dilemma—obfuscation. One can scarcely criticize what one cannot understand. But the language of physicians is more than a shield against rebuke. It intends to describe with precision the natural processes of human health and disease, even if such understanding is entirely wrong. And thus, in the pre- and proto-scientific eras, when doctors were of little if any benefit, or even dangerous to be around, they must have had a great tendency to bluster or bluff their way through a bad outcome. And thus, irreverence aimed at doctors flourished whenever their bluff was called. Enter medical satire. A contemporary of Moliere, Jean-Baptiste de Santeul, provided us with the motto of Comedy: Castigat ridendo mores, ‘laughing corrects morals’.
The Hutcheons, Professors of Medicine and Comparative Literature, respectively, identified three categories of physician characters as portrayed in popular media: pompous pedant, medical monster, and humane healer. We deal here with the ‘pompous pedant’ category as an element of medical satire, one that was perfected as ‘Il Dottore’ on the stages of Italy in the era of the Commedia dell’arte.
Shakespeare was much influenced by this genre and one might think that he (aka Edward de Vere) would have more often skewered doctors with his great satirical wit. But only one instance stands out: Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The real Dr. Caius (), however, was a physician of great distinction: President of the Royal College of Physicians, attendant to Kings and Queens and scholar (he documented the mysterious Sweating Sickness). And then there was the fact that William Harvey’s (), description of the circulation of blood was a seminal event in the history of medicine, and a matter of English pride.
While the tradition of medical satire continued down the centuries, (Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Mozart in Così fan tutte (1790), Donizetti's Elisir d'amore (1832) and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (1918), to pick a few), it is in France, when Louis XIV sat on the throne and Guy Patin in the Dean’s seat at the Faculty of Paris, that we find the genre in full flourish.
Drama and comedy were as richly acted out off as on stage. Physician autocrats and insurrectionists fought for their careers, in public, over disputes about the use of antimony or the circulation of the blood. The real physician’s diaries of the King’s health were as comic as the plays. The schools at Montpelier and Paris were jealous of one another. Advocate of chemistry or devotee of Galen: choose your tribe. The elaborate ceremony that bestowed the medical degree in France, so bemused the visiting philosopher from England, John Locke, that he referred to it as ‘a recipe for making a doctor’.
A burlesque of this ceremony is the last scene in the last play by Moliere, The Imaginary Invalid. The idea for it grew out of a conversation Moliere had at a famous salon, where he would meet with other artists, intellectuals, and renegade doctors. It was practically a script session.
In articles to follow we will explore in more detail the events from William Harvey’s description of the circulation of blood in 1628 to that day, in 1673, when Moliere died within hours of the curtain-close of his last performance, in the Imaginary Invalid. He left a legacy of medical satire par excellence, unsurpassed in hilarity and instruction.
Along the way, you will learn a few bon mots, each guaranteed to win a knowing grin from the cognoscenti. Just say things like '…and that’s why your daughter is mute…', or start singing "saignare, purgare, clysterium donare".
I especially invite the comments of our French colleagues (not wanting to be a poseur on the subject of Moliere). And yes, I know, we've left off the accent mark—a matter of convenience. Excuse moi.
In 1974 I attended a performance of The Imaginary Invalid at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario Canada. As a medical student, I found it hilarious. Recently I looked for a copy in my local bookstore (a national chain). There were none. Herewith, a link to a six volume edition of all his plays, for free.
The plays of interest for our purpose are: The Flying Doctor (Le Medecin Volant 1659) [v.6], Don Juan (1665) [v.3] , Love is the Best Doctor (L’Amour Medecin 1665) [v.3], The Physician in Spite of Himself (Le Medecin Malgre Lui 1666) [v.3], Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669) [v.5], and The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire 1673) [v.6].
Also noted is the excellent 1897 book by Doctor AM Brown, which is replete with details and insights unmatched by any modern work.
The dramatic works of Moliere : rendered into English by Henri Van Laun ; illustrated with nineteen engravings on steel from paintings and designs by Horace Vernet, Desenne, Johannot and Hersent; complete in six volumes (1-6 in order):
Alexander Menzies Brown.