Much to be endured

D.J. Enright

  • Samuel Johnson in the Medical World: The Doctor and the Patient by John Wiltshire
    Cambridge, 293 pp, £30.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 521 38326 9

‘I want to draw some connections between Samuel Johnson, the amateur doctor and enthusiast for medicine, and the Doctor Johnson who figures so largely in the cultural imagination ... If we focus on the figure of Samuel Johnson, the unco-ordinated, discontinuous events of 18th-century medicine will seem momentarily at least to converge. He lived a life within medicine, intimate with some of the age’s chief practitioners, learned in both the classical and contemporary branches of the art, receiving upon and within his body its various ingenuities and interventions.’ Using a mass of material drawn from Johnson’s writings and those of contemporary medical men, besides the testimonies of friends and strangers, John Wiltshire examines Johnson as both sufferer and physician (or healer). Hence his punning subtitle. Some of Johnson’s best friends, starting with his godfather, were doctors, and in addition to being himself a monumental patient, he was ready to give others the benefit of his advice. He emerges as both the most morbidly disordered of men and the sanest, and a typical virtue of his medical pronouncements, whether somatic or psychological, is that they are cool, measured and carefully framed. Boswell was at his most Johnsonian when he observed that since the exercise of his reason was Johnson’s ‘supreme enjoyment’, any threat to that faculty was ‘the evil most to be dreaded’: ‘He fancied himself seized by it [insanity], or approaching to it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary soundness and vigour of judgment.’

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