Medicine – Doctor and Nurse

THERE are individuals—doctors and nurses, for example—whose very existence is a constant reminder of our frailties; and considering the notoriously irritating character of such people, I often wonder that the world deals so gently with them. The presence of the parson suggests dim possibilities, not the grim realities conjured up by the names of the persons just mentioned; the lawyer never worries us—in this way, and we can imagine in the future a social condition in which neither divinity nor law shall have a place—when all shall be friends and each one a priest, when the meek shall possess the earth; but we cannot picture a time when Birth and Life and Death shall be separated from the “grizzly troop” which we dread so much and which is ever associated in our minds with “physician and nurse.”

Dread! Yes, but mercifully for us in a vague and misty way. Like schoolboys we play among the shadows cast by the turrets of the temple of oblivion, towards which we travel, regardless of what awaits us in the vale of years beneath. Suffering and disease are ever before us, but life is very pleasant; and the motto of the world, when well, is “forward with the dance.” Fondly imagining that we are in a happy valley, we deal with ourselves as the King did with the Gautama, and hide away everything that suggests our fate. Perhaps we are wise. Who knows? Mercifully, the tragedy of life, though seen, is not realized. It is so close that we lose all sense of its proportions. And better so; for, as George Eliot has said, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

With many, however, it is a wilful blindness, a sort of fool’s paradise, not destroyed by a thought, but by the stern exigencies of life, when the “ministers of human fate” drag us, or—worse still—those near and dear to us, upon the stage. Then, we become acutely conscious of the drama of human suffering, and of those inevitable stage accessories —doctor and nurse.

If, Members of the Graduating Class, the medical profession, composed chiefly of men, has absorbed a larger share of attention and regard, you have, at least, the satisfaction of feeling that yours is the older, and, as older, the more honourable calling. In one of the lost books of Solomon, a touching picture is given of Eve, then an early grandmother, bending over the little Enoch, and showing Mahala how to soothe his sufferings and to allay his pains. Woman, “the link among the days,” and so trained in a bitter school, has, in successive generations, played the part of Mahala to the little Enoch, of Elaine to the wounded Lancelot. It seems a far cry from the plain of Mesopotamia and the lists of Camelot to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, but the spirit which makes this scene possible is the same, tempered through the ages, by the benign influence of Christianity. Among the ancients, many had risen to the idea of forgiveness of enemies, of patience under wrong doing, and even of the brotherhood of man; but the spirit of Love only received its incarnation with the ever memorable reply to the ever memorable question, Who is my neighbour?–a reply which has changed the attitude of the world. Nowhere in ancient history, sacred or profane, do we find pictures of devoted heroism in women such as dot the annals of the Catholic Church, or such as can be paralleled in our own century. Tender maternal affection, touching filial piety were there; but the spirit abroad was that of Deborah not Rizpah, of Jael not Dorcas.

In the gradual division of labour, by which civilization has emerged from barbarism, the doctor and the nurse have been evolved, as useful accessories in the incessant warfare in which man is engaged. The history of the race is a grim record of passions and ambitions, of weaknesses and vanities, a record, too often, of barbaric inhumanity, and even today, when philosophers would have us believe his thoughts had widened, he is ready as of old to shut the gates of mercy, and to let loose the dogs of war. It was in one of these attacks of race-mania that your profession, until then unsettled and ill-defined, took, under Florence Nightingale—ever blessed be her name—its modern position.

Individually, man, the unit, the microcosm, is fast bound in chains of atavism, inheriting legacies of feeble will and strong desires, taints of blood and brain. What wonder, then, that many, sore let and hindered in running the race, fall by the way, and need a shelter in which to recruit or to die, a hospital, in which there shall be no harsh comments on conduct, but only, so far as is possible, love and peace and rest? Here, we learn to scan gently our brother man, judging not, asking no questions, but meting out to all alike a hospitality worthy of the Hotel Dieu, and deeming our-‘ selves honoured in being allowed to act as its dispensers.

Here, too, are daily before our eyes the problems which have ever perplexed the human mind; problems not presented in the dead abstract of books, but in the living concrete of some poor fellow in his last round, fighting a brave fight, but sadly weighted, and going to his account “unhousell’d, disappointed, unanel’d, no reckoning made.” As we whisper to each other over his bed that the battle is decided and Euthanasia alone remains, have I not heard in reply to that muttered proverb, so often on the lips of the physician, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes,” your answer, in clear accents—the comforting words of the prayer of Stephen?

But our work would be much restricted were it not for man’s outside adversary–Nature, the great Moloch, which exacts a frightful tax of human blood, sparing neither young nor old; taking the child from the cradle, the mother from her babe, and the father from the family. Is it strange that man, unable to dissociate a personal element from such work, has incarnated an evil principle—the devil? If we have now so far outgrown this idea as to hesitate to suggest, in seasons of epidemic peril, that “it is for our sins we suffer”—when we know the drainage is bad; if we no longer mock the heart prostrate in the grief of loss with the words “whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth “—when we know the milk should have been sterilized—if, I say, we have, in a measure, become emancipated from such teachings, we have not yet risen to a true conception of Nature. Cruel, in the sense of being inexorable, she may be called, but we can no more upbraid her great laws than we can the lesser laws of the state, which are a terror only to evildoers. The pity is that we do not know them all; in our ignorance we err daily, and pay a blood penalty. Fortunately it is now a great and growing function of the medical profession to search out the laws about epidemics, and these outside enemies of man, and to teach to you, the public—dull, stupid pupils you are, too, as a rule—the ways of Nature, that you may walk therein and prosper.

It would be interesting, Members of the Graduating Class, to cast your horoscopes. To do so collectively you would not like; to do so individually—I dare not; but it is safe to predict certain things of you, as a whole. You will be better women for the life which you have led here. But what I mean by “better women” is that the eyes of your souls have been opened, the range of your sympathies has been widened, and your characters have been moulded by the events in which you have been participators during the past two years.

Practically there should be for each of you a busy, useful, and happy life; more you cannot expect; a greater blessing the world cannot bestow. Busy you will certainly be, as the demand is great, both in private and public, for women with your training. Useful your lives must be, as you will care for those who cannot care for themselves, and who need about them, in the day of tribulation, gentle hands and tender hearts. And happy lives shall be yours, because busy and useful; having been initiated into the great secret—that happiness lies in the absorption in some vocation which satisfies the soul; that we are here to add what we can to, not to get what we can from, life.

And, finally, remember what we are—useful supernumeraries in the battle, simply stage accessories in the drama, playing minor, but essential, parts at the exits and entrances, or picking up, here and there, a strutter, who may have tripped upon the stage. You have been much by the dark river—so near to us all—and have seen so many embark, that the dread of the old boatman has almost disappeared, and

When the Angel of the darker Drink At last shall find you by the river brink, And offering his cup, invite your soul Forth to your lips to quaff—you shall not shrink:

your passport shall be the blessing of Him in whose footsteps you have trodden, unto whose sick you have ministered, and for whose children you have cared.