The Imaginary Invalid was the last play Moliere was to write. He was at the peak of his career, and the nadir of his health when he penned the most confrontational and explicit of his screeds against the profession of medicine. He explicitly framed his argument in an ongoing debate between a hypochondriac, The Imaginary Invalid (Argan), and his rational, and skeptical, brother (Beralde). They even discuss the author by name—“a fine impertinent fellow.” The last scene is a triumphal ceremony as The Imaginary Invalid is installed as his own physician. But the ceremony is a farce—the triumph is Moliere’s.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to dwell on tragedy when discussing one of the world’s greatest of comic playwrights, there are good reasons for doing so. Moliere early on wanted to be a tragedian. As it turned out, tragic circumstance was as much a feature of his own life as that of his characters’. Comedy and tragedy are entangled in the skein of human experience, and Moliere could weave them together as well as the Ancient Greeks.
The following passages are from five of the six plays in which medicine was the target de jour for Moliere’s social satire. The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire 1673) [v.6] will be discussed in a later post. We discuss here 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].
Some 350 years after his plays were the most popular in Paris, Moliere’s witticisms spice the French language*, a tribute to his enduring relevance as a social critic. Moliere’s art was, if not an antidote, than at least an anodyne for the denizens of 17th century France, whose social lives were constrained by authorities of every kind. In the field of medicine, there was a sense of resignation. The inevitability of illness was to be feared—but so too was the noxious assault on disease and patient alike by doctors more invested in process than results.
We continue exploring Moliere’s comic portrayal of doctors by considering the state of medicine in seventeenth century France and features of Moliere’s life that shaped his attitude toward it. His Jesuit education afforded him the tools of a skeptic—critical thinking and a knowledge of natural philosophy. His talent as a playwright, along with Royal protection, afforded him an audience. He was going to mirror, in public, the growing perception that the medical profession had become senile. The medical Faculty of Paris had met their match.
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.
These days, there are two brands of advocates for the use of magnetism in the practice of medicine. Some are high tech wizards, expert in biophysics. The others are charlatans. The charlatans are a hold over from past centuries when magnetism and biology were poorly understood. Two physicians played a prominent role in this story: Gilbert, who was arguably a better scientist that even Roger Bacon, his more famous contemporary; and Mesmer who was, contrary to the reputation of ‘Mesmerism’, not a ‘complete’ charlatan.
If the historical record is meant to be the ‘best available approximation of the truth’, then historians must acquire an intimate knowledge of the subject and objectively apply and interpret valid fact finding methods. Within the history of medicine, there is an ongoing and decades old debate over the relative merits of physicians versus social scientists as the most reliable or pertinent narrators. In trying to “locate” the discipline along a spectrum of mind-sets and skill-sets, there is no better place to start then the venerable program in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
This story deals with the principle of fire, the breath of life and laughing gas—in other words, phlogiston, oxygen and nitrous oxide. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a few of the best medical minds in England were spending their days in breathless anticipation as one desperate patient after another submitted to treatment with newly discovered gases. By night, however, they could be found in the parlors of the upper class, laughing up a storm with society matrons and famous poets.
While the Biblical imperative “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23) does not call for self-experimentation, there is a certain religious zeal, if you will, that has driven some physicians to do just that. The motivation and propriety of medical self–experimentation can be debated, but the many known examples make for more than a few good stories. Here are just three—the ones where such temerity was rewarded with a Nobel Prize.
Diego Rivera was a muralist–and a communist, sort of. In any case, he was the artist of choice for the government of Mexico when, in 1951, they wished to celebrate socialized health care in Mexico, which had only recently been implemented. Rivera’s mural is a painted panoply of art, allegory, history and politics that begs for interpretation.
This week’s post is a bit of a turnabout. I’m going to pose a question about three famous figures from biology and medicine, all named Hodgkin—who is whom and how related, if at all.
This is an exercise in information–seeking. Next week I’ll discuss what I came up with after ‘going down the rabbit hole.’
Given the popularity of our recent post on the Mütter Museum, with its collection of anatomical oddities, we offer more of the grotesque in medical history, this time with a connection to Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum. Herewith, the story of one Phineas Gage, what befell him and what was learned therefrom.
Today's story is somewhat brief, as I am presently busy caring for our fellow traveler—the one who appears at the end of each post. He was listening to commemorative messages for Martin Luther King Day delivered by Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson when he took suddenly ill. He turned red, then green, and threw up. I'm not feeling too well myself.
The barefoot doctors of China were cultural heroes, both at home and to an anti-establishment sector of the West. But to some, they were just practicing traditional Chinese medicine, making them more useful for propaganda posters than for public health. The truth is that the barefoot doctors were of great practical benefit and were the avant–garde of modern medicine in China.
The pending flip of the calendar to a new page and a new year is a fitting time to contemplate the patterns of change in medicine. Over eras and epochs, the practice and perceptions of the healing arts and sciences change inexorably—sometimes with the determined linearity of a railroad track, and sometimes with the dizzying circularity of a Ferris wheel.
Christmas Disease was first described in an issue of the British Medical Journal on Dec 27, 1952. Successful gene therapy for Christmas Disease was reported fifty-five years later on Dec 6, 2017 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It all started with Stephan Christmas, who was diagnosed in 1949, at the age of two, with a bleeding disorder—of some kind.