NOT Blinded by Science
While doing some reading in pursuit of my book, I noticed something significant about medical history. I was reading about the Warren family, whose 5 generations of physicians built much of American medicine certainly in New England, if not nationwide. The profession of medicine did not evolve from the scientific community, but from the clergyman, the apothecary, the midwife and the barber. The word surgeon originates from two greek words meaning “to work with the hands”. Before the Revolutionary War the physician, so-called, was a wealthy man who wore academic robes and traveled to universities and monasteries worrying about medical theories. He wouldn’t dream of seeing an actual patient. Before the revolutionary war anyone could declare themselves a physician. The apprenticeship system of training doctors rose from these origins.
Dr. Joseph Warren, the first Warren son to become a medical man, had what sounds like a decent education, with 4 years at Harvard and 2 years of medical training. But he started at Harvard at age 15 and his medical training was two years of apprenticeship. There was no such thing as an exam or board he had to pass. He practiced medicine because he was an outgoing guy who loved meeting and taking care of people. Which is good, because he couldn’t really effectively DO anything to help his patients. But he showed up, treated people with whatever was known to be useful or with whatever was usually done, made people feel he was taking care of them, and was by all accounts regarded as a good doctor.
My point is that medicine was not originally a scientific endeavor. It was a humanitarian endeavor. Doctors learned at the bedside and did all their work at the bedside, caring for people in their communities. They generally either didn’t know or didn’t care about theories of disease such as the humoral theory or the classification of fevers. Nowadays you have to ace organic chemistry and physics to get into med school, then study all the latest discoveries in genetics and stem cell advances, then learn to use all the fancy scientific and laboratory equipment we get to play around with today. The field attracts a completely different type of person to do a completely different job than was originally practiced by doctors. True, we can actually do useful things to help people now. We can do those things thanks to the contributions of the scientific community, into which medicine has been subsumed. But medicine, from it’s roots, is about caring for people.
This is part of the reason there is such a crisis in the primary care field today. Patients still need the humanitarians, but humanitarians don’t go to medical school generally. Scientists do. Now we have robotic surgery but can’t get a handle on people eating too much. That’s why the history of medicine is still important. It reminds us of our roots as people who care about people.