Shaw and the Doctors
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In Failing Health: The Medical Crisis and the A.M.A.
A Sacred Trust
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Higher Education and the Nation’s Health: Policies for Medical and Dental Education Higher Education
The American Health Empire: Power, Profits and Politics prepared by
RIDGEON: I think I did. It really comes to that…. I suppose—yes: I killed him.
JENNIFER: And you tell me that! to my face! callously! You are not afraid!
RIDGEON: I am a doctor: I have nothing to fear.
—George Bernard Shaw
The Doctor’s Dilemma
“Let us not wantonly weaken that persistent delusion,” Dr. Filerin urges a colleague in L’Amour médecin, “which fortunately provides so many of us with our daily bread and enables us, from the money of those we put under sod, to build a noble heritage—for ourselves.” Today, however, it is not Molière, but Shaw who seems to have the squirming physician and surgeon by the collar. In the United States, where most medical practitioners are private entrepreneurs and good health is regarded as a commodity, Shaw’s criticism remains fresh after half a century. “It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community, as at present provided for, is a murderous absurdity,” he wrote in the Preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma.
That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity.
The medical profession, Shaw was fond of saying, “is a conspiracy to exploit popular credulity and human suffering.” As medical care becomes increasingly difficult to find, to pay for, and to be reasonably satisfied with, some of his most cantankerous accusations appear very like the truth.
Shaw emerges from the pages of Roger Boxill’s excellent study as an articulate and compassionate critic of the medical profession. Modern “medical sociologists” should be measured against the standard he set. “The course of Bernard Shaw’s life (1856-1950) coincides with an eventful chapter in the history of medicine,” Mr. Boxill writes. Shaw was a concerned witness to the unprecedented joining of medicine and science—if not in fact, at least (and most important) in the public imagination. The physiological investigations of Claude Bernard, the discoveries of Pasteur and Koch, the methods of Lister and Jenner combined during Shaw’s lifetime to invest the art of medicine with the authority of the laboratory. Or so it seemed. In fact the germ theory, antisepsis, and even vaccination have done less than we had supposed to improve the health of anyone, as not only Shaw but, most recently and authoritatively, René Dubos has observed.
But at the time, and for the first time, the traditional arrogance of doctors was said to have some basis in demonstrable truth; and there, for Shaw, lay the danger. The pretentious physician might, with the sanction of science and technology, begin to take himself seriously; and, worse, he might be taken seriously by others. When in Britain the Medical Act of 1886 created rigid licensing criteria and a consequent monopoly for the regular, “scientific …
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