An adage a day …

by Lorien E. Menhennett

William Osler (1849-1919) was a Canadian physician and one of the founding professors at Johns Hopkins. His quotes and wisdom are well known among many in medicine. Here are some of his words, and those of some others with interesting insight into medicine.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” if you believe the common adage. Depending on the situation (and on the picture), that can be true. In the context of medicine, for example, you need pictures of human anatomy — not just words describing human anatomy — to learn about the body.

That said, another adage takes a different view: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This speaks to the potential power of words over forceful actions, especially in diplomatic situations. (I could probably make a really bad surgical analogy here if I tried, but I’m not going to.)

In sum, pictures, actions, and words all have their respective places.

As a writer, I believe in the power of words, not only on their own, but also to shape our actions and our mental pictures of the world surrounding us. And when it comes to words, people have had plenty to say on the subject of medicine. In many cases though, what makes someone’s words memorable has less to do with what they say than with how they say it.

With that introduction, I would like to share some particularly memorable medical adages that I have collected. All of them come from a 27-page editorial that was published in 1928 (yes, you read that right) in The Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. You can access the whole article online here.

Popular Chinese sayings

  • The unlucky doctor treats the beginning of an illness; the fortunate doctor the end.
  • It is easy to get a thousand prescriptions, but hard to get one single remedy.
  • Before thirty, men seek disease; after thirty, diseases seek men.

Chinese literary aphorisms

  • Men worry over the great number of diseases; doctors worry over the small number of remedies. – Pien Chiao
  • When you treat a disease, first treat the mind. – Chen Jen
  • To avoid sickness, eat less; to prolong life, worry less. – Chu Hui Weng

Quotations from the Hippocratic Canon

  • The highest duty of medicine is to get the patient well; of several effective remedies, choose the least sensational.
  • Physicians are many in title but few in reality.
  • Where the physician can do no good, let him do no harm.
  • To do nothing is sometimes a good remedy.
  • Science begets knowledge, opinion ignorance.

Herophilos (Greek physician and first anatomist; 335 – 280 BC)

  • To lose one’s health renders science null, art inglorious, strength effortless, wealth useless and eloquence powerless.
  • Medicines are nothing in themselves, if not properly used, but the very hands of the gods, if employed with reason and prudence.
  • He who can discriminate between the possible and the impossible is the wisest physician.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus (Roman encyclopedist; c. 25 BC – c. 50)

  • The art of healing has no more solid base than experience.
  • The art of medicine has almost no constant rule.
  • We should not impute the faults of the physician to his art.
  • Better an untried remedy than none at all.
  • For major ills, major remedies.

Thomas Syndenham (British physician recognized as founder of epidemiology; 1624 – 1689)

  • The art of medicine is to be properly learned only from its practice and exercise.
  • A man is as old as his arteries.

Jean-Martin Charcot (Pioneering French neurologist; 1825 – 1893)

  • Disease is from of old and nothing about it has changed. It is we who change, as we learn to recognize what was formerly imperceptible.

Abraham Jacobi (German-born physician, opened the first children’s clinic in the U.S.; 1830 – 1919)

  • Treat the man who is sick and not a Greek name.
  • Nature does not kill and does not heal. If there were consciousness in Nature, she would feel indifferent about what she is, viz., mere evolution.

Sir Thomas Clifford Allbut (British physician and inventor of the clinical thermometer; 1836 – 1925)

  • The name of a disease is not, as it is continually regarded, a thing.

William Osler (Canadian physician and one of the founding professors at Johns Hopkins; 1849 – 1919)

  • From Hippocrates to Hunter, the treatment of disease was one long traffic in hypotheses.
  • Common sense in medical matters is rare and is usually in inverse ratio to the degree of education.