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A Book About Doctors

Library of Alexandria
SOMETHING ABOUT STICKS, AND RATHER LESS ABOUT WIGS. Properly treated and fully expanded, this subject of the stick would cover all the races of man in all regions and all ages; indeed, it would hide every member of the human family. Attention could be called to the respect accorded in every chapter of the world’s history, sacred and profane, to the rabdos—to the fasces of the Roman lictors, which every school-boy honours (often unconsciously) with an allusion when he says he will lick, or vows he won't be licked,—to the herald’s staff of Hermes, the caduceus of Mercury, the wand of Æsculapius, and the rods of Moses and the contending sorcerers—to the mystic bundles of nine twigs, in honour of the nine muses, that Dr. Busby loved to wield, and which many a simple English parent believes Solomon, in all his glory, recommended as an element in domestic jurisdiction—to the sacred wands of savage tribes, the staffs of our constables and sheriffs, and the highly polished gold sticks and black rods that hover about the anterooms of St. James’s or Portsoken. The rule of thumb has been said to be the government of this world. And what is this thumb but a short stick, a sceptre, emblematic of a sovereign authority which none dares to dispute? The stick, says the Egyptian proverb, came down from heaven. The only sticks, however, that we here care to speak about are physicians' canes, barbers' poles, and the twigs of rue which are still strewn before the prisoner in the dock of a criminal court. Why should they be thus strung together? The physician’s cane is a very ancient part of his insignia. It is now disused, but up to very recent times no doctor of medicine presumed to pay a professional visit, or even to be seen in public, without this mystic wand. Long as a footman’s stick, smooth and varnished, with a heavy gold knob or cross-bar at the top, it was an instrument with which, down to the present century, every prudent aspirant to medical practice was provided. The celebrated gold-headed cane which Radcliffe, Mead, Askew, Pitcairn and Baillie successively bore is preserved in the College of Physicians, bearing the arms which those gentlemen assumed, or were entitled to. In one respect it deviated from the physician’s cane proper. It has a cross-bar almost like a crook; whereas a physician’s wand ought to have a knob at the top. This knob in olden times was hollow, and contained a vinaigrette, which the man of science always held to his nose when he approached a sick person, so that its fumes might protect him from the noxious exhalations of his patient. We know timid people who, on the same plan, have their handkerchiefs washed in camphor-water, and bury their faces in them whenever they pass the corner of a dingy street, or cross an open drain, or come in contact with an ill-looking man. When Howard, the philanthropist, visited Exeter, he found that the medical officer of the county gaol had caused a clause to be inserted in his agreement with the magistrates, exonerating him from attendance and services during any outbreak of the gaol fever. Most likely this gentleman, by books or experience, had been enlightened as to the inefficacy of the vinaigrette. But though the doctor, like a soldier skulking from the field of battle, might with impunity decline visiting the wretched captives, the judge was forced to do his part of the social duty to them—to sit in their presence during their trial in a close, fetid court; to brow-beat them when they presumed to make any declaration of their innocence beyond a brief not guilty; to read them an energetic homily on the consequences of giving way to corrupt passions and evil manners; and, finally, to order them their proper apportionments of whipping, or incarceration, or banishment, or death. Such was the abominable condition of our prisons, that the poor creatures dragged from them and placed in the dock often by the noxious effluvia of their bodies made seasoned criminal lawyers turn pale—partly, perhaps, through fear, but chiefly through physical discomfort. Then arose the custom of sprinkling aromatic herbs before the prisoners—so that if the health of his Lordship and the gentlemen of the long robe suffered from the tainted atmosphere, at least their senses of smell might be shocked as little as possible. Then, also, came the chaplain’s bouquet, with which that reverend officer was always provided when accompanying a criminal to Tyburn. Coke used to go circuit carrying in his hand an enormous fan furnished with a handle, in the shape of a goodly stick—the whole forming a weapon of offence or defence. It is not improbable that the shrewd lawyer caused the end of this cumbrous instrument to be furnished with a vinaigrette