Liberty, Equality, Regrettably

For a number of years I used to write a weekly column in the British Medical Journal about medicine and literature. The field, of course, was vast, inexhaustible, because medicine deals with birth and death and everything in between—as does literature. Many doctors have taken to the pen, a surprising number of great writers had doctors for fathers (Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and Proust, to name but three), doctors appear frequently as characters in literature, and scenes of illness are likewise very common, some accurate and some preposterous. Whole libraries, or at least bookshelves, have been written about Shakespeare and medicine.

While I was writing my column I had an added incentive—not that I needed one—to go into any secondhand bookshop that I passed. Wanting to avoid the obvious in my column, I sought out-of-the-way works with some medical aspect. One day I came across a small book, published in 1793, with the title A Journal During a Residence in France, from the Beginning of August, to the Middle of December, 1792. To which is Added, an Account of the Most Remarkable Events that Happened at Paris from that Time to the Death of the Late King of France. The author was John Moore, MD, and so I bought the book to turn it into a column (which I never did).

Dr. Moore, I later discovered, was not the obscure scribbler I had supposed, but in his time had been a well-known and best-selling author. Well, one cannot know everything—thank God. He was a Scottish surgeon, well-connected, who before long grew tired of the miseries and perhaps the responsibilities of medical practice (in those days the rate of success could not have been very high), and he sought refuge in a literary career, very successfully in the event—some of his books went through 21 editions in his lifetime.

His journal has the immediacy of newspaper reporting. It is written during the days following the French Revolution without the benefit of hindsight, that great and almost absolute guarantor of political wisdom. Dr. Moore is an honest, even naïve, observer.

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