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The English Physician
University Alabama Press, 2007
128 pp., $34.95
Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor (Art of Mentoring)
Basic Books, 2007
256 pp., $24.95
In his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still." Indeed, this is true in the world of medicine, for though technology and treatments continue to move ahead, we never really leave our infirmities behind. Each new generation of physicians must interpret current medical therapies in light of our perpetual physical illnesses and our varied emotional responses to them.
Consider the situation in Great Britain and America a few centuries ago. As Michael Flannery notes in the introduction to his finely prepared critical edition of Nicholas Culpeper's The English Physician, even then—as today—there were alternative medical treatments for those who opposed "mainstream medicine's attempts to create a monopoly through restrictive licensing and other regulatory measures." Thus Culpeper (1616-1654) collected various pharmaceutical and botanical treatments to publish in books so that every man could be his own physician. Culpeper's goal was not to pass on medical wisdom from one generation of physicians to the next but rather to make treatments accessible to each new generation of people, who could serve as their own physicians.
Naturally, Culpeper's disdain for the medical establishment and his alternative therapies brought him scorn from the medical community. Looking backwards with the benefit of medical progress, it is indeed difficult not to smile when we read through some of the remedies in The English Physician. I doubt the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, would approve of Culpeper's treatment for the cough in children: "Take 1 Ounce of Hog's Grease, half an Ounce of Garlick, bruise and stamp them together, and anoint the Soles of the Feet at Night warm, & then bind a Plaister thereof on the Soles." For the "falling sickness," the reader is ...