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Mere Mortals: Medico-historical Essays

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
There can be little doubt that the illustrious Dr. Johnson was a psychasthenic. His father could see in life nothing but gloom, though his mother seems to have been hearty and sensible enough. Therefore presumably we are entitled to say that the Great Cham’s family history was faulty. At an early age he developed some trouble that his parents diagnosed as scrofula, or tuberculous glands of the neck, but Boswell expressly hints was suspected to have been caught from a nurse. They took him to England’s kindly but not intelligent majesty, Queen Anne, who, wearing a long black hood and diamonds to impress her patients, touched him for his “grievous malady.” But she did not cure him; rather it would seem that she made him worse; for all Johnson’s frightful jerkings and grimaces, roarings and puffings, may possibly be traced back to that one moment of nervous tension when he felt himself a little boy, the observed of all observers, waiting to be touched by the sister-in-law of William the Dutchman. A child of bad heredity—indeed any child—must be treated with the utmost care long before it appears to be conscious, before it appears to take notice of what is going on around it; quarrelsome parents and angry nurses may so warp his whole mental outlook that it is spoiled for life. And it could not have been a good thing for the coming Great Cham to subject him to such nervous strain as was necessarily involved in taking him before Queen Anne. He was lucky in that it did not make him stammer. Many a sensitive boy has been made to stammer by less than was involved in Sam’s childish treatment. Long before a child appears to be conscious its mind is taking notice of all that goes on around it, and its whole future life may be warped in one moment of terror or anxiety. And the sad thing is that probably Mrs. Johnson senior had made a mistake in diagnosis, that probably little Sam was not suffering from scrofula at all, but from some swelling of the glands of the neck that was due to something in his scalp. That he lived till he was seventy-five seems to show that he never suffered either from tuberculosis or syphilis, those two great slayers; and if his glands had really been tuberculous it is probable that, bursting, they would have formed a “mixed infection” that would have had more serious effects than mere local scarring.