Dr. Bob’s Book Blog
Mark Twain and Medicine
“Any Mummery Will Cure”
by K. Patrick Ober, MD
University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2003
“Any mummery will cure, if the patient’s faith is strong in it.”
Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Mark Twain seems to be almost everyone’s favorite poet and pundit, so to speak. In his day he was an authority as well as a jester, so he could get away with telling the bald truth to powerful interests. I sometimes think of Twain as America Personified – The Great Good American.
George Bernard Shaw once observed, that Samuel Langhorn Clemens “has to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang him believe he is joking.”
This book, written in 2003 by an endocrinologist in North Carolina, served a number of purposes for that writer. Ober obviously is a huge Mark Twain fan, seeming to have read everything the great man wrote. He digs into Twain’s own medical history as well as his family’s to re-tell many intimate tales of Clemens’s life which mingled with physicians and healers of many breeds. Finally, the author takes the opportunity to scan American medical history of the 19th century up to present times. Thereby, he uses Twain’s experience as a sounding board for his own opinions on the sad state of medicine of past eras in comparison with the present state of practice. Along the way, both Twain and Ober win some and lose some.
The book reads fairly easily as it uses little medical jargon. It is filled with wonderful stories and pithy quotes. Ober showes early on that Mr. Twain (1835–1910) was wont to get peeved with doctors as much as anyone else: “That doctor had half an idea that there is something the matter with my brain. . . . Doctors do know so little and they do charge so much for it.”
Ober recognizes that much of medicine in Twain’s day, as in ours, was involved with treating tissues and parts rather than human beings. That suggested to Mark, “A doctor needs to know nothing about the soul wrapped in those tissues.”
Ober believes that in 19th-century America, medicine was in its dark ages still using generalized theories and often leaving patients ill and in pain until Nature came to the rescue. Now, we have systematized medicine which often leaves people in disease and pain, and burdened with large bills. Thankfully, regardless of practitioners' rationale for treatment, many tend to get better anyway.
The whole situation tends to support Hippocrates’s Rule of Thirds: “One third of patients get better, another third stays the same, and the last third worsen.” Some things change, and some stay the same after centuries or millennia.
One point of note in this time of the Covid Pandemic might put the present traumas in perspective. Cholera passed through America repeatedly in Twain’s times. This book gives a few paragraphs touching upon MT's experiences, out of which he decided that, “The only thing more devastating than cholera's death rate was the FEAR that came with every new outbreak.”
Today, things are much the same with our Pandemic. The sick FEAR illness, doctors and treatments sometimes with equal vigor.
Because of or despite their fears, Samuel Langhorn Clemens and his family tried all kinds of medicine and healing which passed them by. Besides standard allopathic medicine, the Clemens bunch used water cure, osteopathy, homeopathy, Christian Science, as well as mind cure and faith healing. The book briefly retells the story of the “faith doctor,” Mrs. Utterback, whom Mark’s birth family consulted in his earliest years.
“I like osteopathy. It is quicker and you don’t have to take any medicine.”
Most of the major sadnesses of Mark Twain's life came with loss of family to disease and injury. His wife, Olivia Langdon, was bedridden for two years as a teenager after a fall despite all the great physicians of Elmira, New York. Eventually, she gained relief through osteopathic treatment and Twain thought for a time that osteopathy was almost a panacea. But, she continued to suffer various ills for much of her life. Two of the three Clemens’s daughters died in their 20s.
Twain had this to say to a friend about personal experience with osteopathy of his day: “There are establishments at 156 Fifth Avenue; 107 East 23d; and 136 Madison Avenue, corner 31st Street. I beg you to go in at one of those places and take the treatment for a month, whether there is anything the matter with you or not. It will set you up and make you gay. I wish you would take it two months. It will cost you but a trifle of time - 15 or 20 minutes two or three times a week - 3 times is best.
“And when there is anything the matter with you, send for those people. You can't possibly regret it. . . . They will take the lassitude and fatigue out of you and enable you to work double tides if you want to.
“I took the treatment daily during 2 months. I began again 3 days ago because I was not sleeping well and was seedy and needed freshening up for work. I am all right again, now.”
An even keener touchstone of healing came to Mark Twain when a youth from Dr Birch in Hannibal, MO days. "The doctor has to care about the patient. And the patient must have faith in the doctor."
Since that truth was often not the fact, Mark Twain carried grievances against the medical monopoly of the day similar to ones which persist with many people in the present one: “The doctor’s insane system has not only been permitted to continue its follies for ages, but has been protected by the State and made a close monopoly - an infamous thing, a crime against a free-man’s proper right to choose his own assassin or his own method of defending his body against disease and death.”
Ober’s Mummery is a worthy and well-written book. But surely, Mr. Twain would have found reason to snipe at it if given a chance to read and review.
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The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit
by Norman Cousins
Penguin Books, NY, NY, 1989.
Norman Cousins is famous for a number of things. He was editor of the Saturday Review for 30 years. Cousins recovered from an incurable spinal disease thanks to vitamins and laughter, the story of which became a bestseller called Anatomy of Illness as Perceived by the Patient. He followed that up with another ailment, a heart attack, and another book called The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness.
The present book was written after ten years on the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. Through his decade at UCLA, Cousins had wide influence on faculty and researchers, students and donors. Mr. Cousins went to the School with an obsession of helping to prove the simple but often ignored tenet that mental attitudes and emotional states have influence on the development and outcomes of illness. He helped to organize and support programs at the University and around the country, “to get the word out,” and to attract large donations to back up the studies.
His book is heavily marked with discussions of medical studies. But, it is also complemented with many personal stories of his own experiences and others of physicians, patients and family members who came to him for their own personal needs surrounding illness. It is almost as if Mr. Cousins became an ombudsman for hundreds, probably thousands during his decade at UCLA. He appears to have a better physician than many many with degrees and certifications.
His book became another bestseller. Cousins summarizes the whole of his experience in these words from the latter pages of Head First:
1. The human body is far more robust than people have been led to believe. Public education in health matters has tended to make people overestimate their weaknesses and underestimate their strengths. The result is that we are in danger of becoming a nation of weaklings and hypochondriacs. Franz Ingelfinger’s estimate that 85 percent of all illnesses are self-liming should serve as the cardinal fact in the reeducation of the American people, just as it should dictate a restrained method of treatment, especially with respect to medications.
2. Patients have a tendency to become panicky. The physician’s ability to reassure the patient is a major factor in activating the body’s own healing systems. Reassurance can help to optimize treatment.
3. The wise physician gives careful attention to the environment of medical care. Circumstances surrounding treatment can affect the result.
4. A strong will to live, along with other positive emotions––faith, love, purpose, determination, humor––are biochemical realities that can affect the environment of medical care. The positive emotions are no less a physiological factors on the upside than are negative emotion on the downside.
5. Depression is a demonstrated cause of physical ill health, including deleterious effects on the immune system. Equally striking is the fact that liberation from depression produces an almost automatic boost in the number of disease-fighting immune cells. The best depression-blockers are a strong will to live, blazing determination, and a sense of purpose best expressed perhaps by interesting, useful activity. The physician’s role in attending to the psychological needs of patients cannot be over-emphasized.
6. Even the most positive attitudes by the patient are no guarantee of a cure, but they can help create an environment conducive to medical care and can enable both patient and physician to get the most out of whatever may be possible.
7. Patients tend to move along the path of their expectations, whether on the upside or on the downside.
8. So long as unexpected remissions occur––and the medical journals are the best places to find such ongoing evidence––both doctors and patients are justified in hoping for the best and working for the best.
9. Challenge creates a better environment for the treatment than does a grim verdict. If the physician intended to treat a serious disease, he must convince the patient both to make a special effort and to believe that the effort is worthwhile.
10. Family, friends, support groups––all can be helpful in combating the emotional devastation that frequently follows a serious diagnosis. Just as the brain tends to convert bad news into panic and helplessness, so strong support from family and friends can help maintain or restore emotional equilibrium.
11. Medical technology is not the ultimate arbiter. The mood in which a patient takes a diagnostic test can affect the outcome of the test. This is especially true of cardiac testing. The circumstances of the test, the ambience of the testing room, and the mood of the patient can sometimes affect the results. In any case, modern technology is not a total replacement of the physician’s diagnostic skills.
12. The ability of the physician to listen to the patient is no less important than the printouts of diagnostic technology. An understanding of all the factors leading up to an illness is no less important than the identification of pathological organisms.
13. Finally, the past ten years have given me an enlarged respect for the men and women who have committed themselves to the practice of medicine. True, I have been troubled by some aspects of medical education and practice, but I would be even more troubled if these observations were to diminish the most important conclusions emerging fro me from a decade at the medical school. The large majority of people involved in medicine––students, teachers, nurses, doctors––can hold their heads high in terms of the quality of their work, their connection to a sustained high purpose, and their understanding of the philosophical dimensions of their profession.
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The Complementary Integrated Medical Revolution
by Susun S. Weed
Ash Tree Publishing, Woodstock, NY, 2020.
Abundant, Plethoric, Bursting Out. Abundantly Well by Susun S. Weed is Filled to Overflowing. Her book is chock full of ideas and information, data and quotations, references and referrals which she has apparently been collecting for decades as an herbalist, healer and author.
The Introduction to Abundantly Well, written by Patch Adams, gives the first clue about what follows in the text. Patch praised therein the author and her book years before it is now being published. The question must be what copy of Abundantly Well did Dr. Adams read as he signs he remarks, “Take charge, in peace, Patch Adams, 3 August 2001.”
In her book, Ms. Weed seems to have taken on the whole world of Wellness and Medicine at once. It appears to be a whole course, a veritable textbook on a massive subject crammed into 300+ pages.
All these criticisms aside, Ms. Weed has collected much valuable information in a novel view with her Seven Medicines. A committed reader could gather much from the book. There are many gems spread throughout the text and useful information for a dedicated student.
Still, there is much of dogma, bias and cherry picking of data. While the writer covers much territory, some topics get barely a paragraph of comment: good, bad or indifferent. Furthermore, glaring contradictions appear on a number of pages. She praises some items in a few words and dismisses others in a sentence.
While Abundantly Well is intended to be health oriented, much time and space is focused on disease in the medical model. It is quite a chore to wade through the vast number of possibilities offered in this book: From doing nothing to doing everything. Only a healing professional or a dilettante with much free time could keep up with the suggestions in the book.
This reviewer believes that Susun Weed has attempted to tackle a nigh impossible job in her retirement years. She seems to have emptied her book closets and her mind to compose this book. Potential reader be wary. Abundantly Well may act as a resource for her students and followers, but may be overwhelming for others. This is more a Reference than a Reading Book.
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Lessons from Native American Healing
by Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Simon & Schuster, NY, NY, 1997.
Lewis Mehl-Madrona might well have entitled his book A Healer Between Two Worlds. Those worlds which pull him sometimes in quite opposite directions are the one of orthodox medicine and the other of Native American healing.
Coyote makes several appearances in the Doctor’s book to share stories related to healing and point to the wonderments of life. Still Coyote Medicine is much more about Lewis as he wanders over the USA, spending years in training and studies at various venues, and then moving on to continue the search for self, mission and niche.
Mehl-Madrona is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story. While growing up a half-breed Cherokee in Kentucky in a broken family, he manages to graduate from college at 18 and medical school at Stanford at 21. Such is unheardof in modern times.
Then, the hard work really begins as Dr. Mehl comes face-to-face with the different worlds of doctoring and healing. For many years, he follows tortuous routes through medical residencies and specialties, graduate psychology programs, and research studies intertwined with extracurricular excursions into Native American healing
Lewis repeatedly recognizes doctoring and healing to be quite distinct pursuits. But, Mehl-Madrona believes they needn’t be so and is quite convinced of the need for them to be integrated. He also believes his mission in life is to help integrate medicine and healing.
The reader may wonder, “Aren’t medicine and healing the same?” Lewis wishfully asks himself that question a number of times.
The sad answer is, “No, medicine far too often is quite removed from healing. It is the soul of things which gives us the capacity to heal ourselves and help heal each other.” And, modern medicine is frequently described as soulless.
This reviewer found the first half of Lewis’s book easier to follow but sadly filled with “horror stories” from hospitals and modern medicine. Lewis tells about working with renal patients who were tested for every possible disease to confirm diagnoses of problems some of which didn’t exist in the first place. Lewis recounts a disturbing story of a man awaiting a kidney transplant whose initial minor problem led to a medical disaster.
In midst of such questionable practices, Mehl-Madrona repeatedly finds himself struggling with authority figures who won’t deign to look at other views because they are wedded to the present system. Dr. Mehl wonders and wonders, “Why can faith heal in rural Kentucky but not in a supposedly progressive hospital?”
He also finds that only Top Dogs (rather than Coyotes) have free reign of speech in medical meetings and decisions. Lesser figures must keep their mouths closed or parrot the party line. Or move on. Which the idealistic doctor-healer does time and time again.
One of Mehl-Madrona’s favored areas of interest and research is birthing. There, he finds the medical system making often disturbing, dangerous intrusions into the normal delivery process. Obstetricians too often forget nature to decide that most natural process should fit protocols, curves, timelines. Then Caesarean section rates soar.
But … But … But … NATURE KNOWS HOW TO GIVE BIRTH.
Dr. Mehl tops his delivery rounds off with a story. Early one morning while scrubbing up in the surgery suite, two obstetricians make a bet for $100 on who can perform his Caesarean section operation the fastest.
“And the winner is DR. JASON. The new record is 17 minutes.” Believe it or not. Read the book.
Those stories are easy to follow for this reviewer. However distressing and nauseating they may be.
Gradually moving through the book, Dr. Mehl shifts to Native American stories meant to carry symbolical and mythical elements to the healing process. Many of these circle around the multiple sweat lodge ceremonies in which Lewis participates and recounts in minute detail. Others fit in with one-on-one counseling and vision quests for patients.
The Doctor’s long narratives show how taken he is with the shamanic paradigm. Where modern medicine has little time for stories, Native American healing makes much use of its potentials. Those stories can open patients and healers to all sorts of revelations. They also can teach patience and tolerance.
Still, Mehl-Madrona’s very detailed experiences in sweat lodges and personal healing efforts become long, repetitive and overly personal. While he is trying to create environments for the sick to heal, he seems sometimes to get absorbed more into the rituals of Native American healing than in the person seeking it.
RITUAL and STORY of the shamanic tradition become as important as the operating suite and prescription pad of orthodox medicine. Some of his stories from the Native American tradition do not translate well into modern Anglo life. Interestingly, Mehl-Madrona repeats that the story teller should not explain his/her story. It is up to the listener to find the meaning.
That leaves this reader-reviewer with three wonderments, upon which Dr. Lewis surely must have meditated at times:
• How much of his story-telling and ritual are for the patient, and how much for the healer?
• How much of the doctor-healer’s successes come from the process and how much from his own personal magnetism and simple investment in the sick one’s life?
• How much does patient destiny have to do with outcomes?
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