Esprit de Corps

Roy Porter

  • Granville Sharp Pattison: Anatomist and Antagonist 1791-1851 by F.L.M. Pattison
    Canongate, 284 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 86241 077 0
  • Death, Dissection and the Destitute by Ruth Richardson
    Routledge, 426 pp, £19.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 7102 0919 3

Can any profession be more altruistic and noble than medicine? It comes as rather a scandalous suggestion that doctors may themselves be sick. Not just overworked and exhausted, and statistically liable to alcoholism, drug-dependence and suicide: but actually deficient in their psychological make-up. This shocking possibility has recently been floated by Glin Bennet, who argues that medicine holds special attractions for those suffering from flawed personalities. In The Wound and the Doctor, Bennet claims that for many such people, medicine satisfies an immature hankering to play the big guy, basking in glory, the apparent self-sacrifices involved assuaging feelings of guilt and providing ego-defence. The heroics of the operating-theatre or the ‘fire brigade’ drama of the emergency call gratify Boy’s Own Paper cravings for adventure, and above all the authority structures of this most hierarchical of professions confer power: ‘Scalpel, nurse.’ Men who cannot cope with the give-and-take of normal human relations lord it over the patient unconscious on the operating-table. Within this psycho-pathology of medicine, anatomists and surgeons are of course the most suspicious types, the profession’s Rambos. In which other occupations is sticking a knife in someone’s back the very acme of the enterprise?

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