23 August 2018

Review: St. Bernard's: The Romance of a Medical Student by Edward Berdoe

Kindle eBook, 286 pages
Published 2014 (originally 1887)
Read December 2017
St. Bernard's: The Romance of a Medical Student
by Æsculapius Scalpel
To analyse a rose is a poor way of learning the sweetness of its perfume; to master the language of a country is of the first necessity to knowing anything about its people. (176-77)
Published under the unlikely pseudonym of "Æsculapius Scalpel," Edward Berdoe's "romance" is a critique of scientific medical education of the late nineteenth century. It's funny in part, but Berdoe is not a very good writer: it supposedly has a main character, but he disappears for chapters at a time in favor of long rants about the evils of scientific medicine. The book is replete with what we might now call "perverse incentives": the nature of teaching hospitals mean that the longer a disease lingers, the more people can study it; they mean that the more untested a treatment, the more someone's name can be made by applying it. So going to one is possibly worse than not going to one, because someone's liable to do an amputation you don't need just so they can get an article out of it.

The book is funny at times-- I read several passages aloud to my long-suffering wife-- but very earnest at others, which is harder to take. And I couldn't help feeling it would have been funnier and horrifying if we'd seen the protagonist actually witness/experience the evils of scientific medicine the narrator goes on about, instead of having the narrator describe them in general terms.

There's even a couple women with scientific interests. The narrator says of them, "If a young woman wants to shield herself from the arrows of Cupid, there is no better defence for her than a wall of books, a science or two, some ologies, and a taste for writing. Behind these bulwarks her pretty face, her figure, her youth, her grace, and her accomplishments are comparatively safe" (233). I haven't quite decided if I would count them as scientists, though; to use Richard Kargon's distinctions, they remind me more of the early nineteenth-century intellectual dilettantes for whom science is one of many interests than the "scientific devotees" of the mid-century, or the late-century professionals-- whom the entire novel rails against.

You might guess that Berdoe was anti-vivisection, but like Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science, the novel treats vivisection not as an anomalous result of the scientific mindset, but as a particularly pernicious instance of it: "What was pain (in other people), if science could be advanced? What was suffering (in patients), if anything could be added to the sum of our knowledge as to the causes of their suffering? To cure the disease, to cut short the malady—ah, no, too often that was to extinguish alike the discomfort and the interesting course of phenomena that accompanied it" (53). Vivisection is mentioned only a few times, but passages like this one describing the self-serving scientific mindset fill the novel. Dull, but interesting (if you have my interests).

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