Medicine – Nationalism in Medicine

It has been the great curse of humanity. In no other shape has the Demon of Ignorance assumed more hideous proportions; to no other obsession do we yield ourselves more readily. For whom do the hosannas ring higher than for the successful butcher of tens of thousands of poor fellows who have been made to pass through the fire to this Moloch of nationalism? A vice of the blood, of the plasm rather, it runs riot in the race, and rages today as of yore in spite of the precepts of religion and the practice of democracy. Nor is there any hope of change; the pulpit is dumb, the press fans the flames, literature panders to it and the people love to have it so. Not that all aspects of nationalism are bad. Breathes there a man with soul so dead that it does not glow at the thought of what the men of his blood have done and suffered to make his country what it is? There is room, plenty of room, for proper pride of land and birth. What I inveigh against is a cursed spirit of intolerance, conceived in distrust and bred in ignorance, that makes the mental attitude perennially antagonistic, even bitterly antagonistic to everything foreign, that subordinates everywhere the race to the nation, forgetting the higher claims of human brotherhood.

While medicine is everywhere tinctured with national characteristics, the wider aspects of the profession, to which I have alluded—our common lineage and the community of interests—should always save us from the more vicious aspects of this sin, if it cannot prevent it altogether. And yet I cannot say, as I wish I could, that we are wholly free from this form of Chauvinism. Can we say, as English, French, German or American physicians, that our culture is always cosmopolitan, not national, that our attitude of mind is always as frankly open and friendly to the French as to the English, to the American as to the German, and that we are free at all times and in all places from prejudice, at all times free from a self-satisfied feeling of superiority the one over the other? There has been of late years a closer union of the profession of the different countries through the International Congress and through the inter-national meetings of the special societies; but this is not enough, and the hostile attitude has by no means disappeared. Ignorance is at the root. When a man talks slightingly of the position and work of his profession in any country, or when a teacher tells you that he fails to find inspiration in the work of his foreign colleagues, in the words of the Arabian proverb—he is a fool, shun him! Full knowledge, which alone disperses the mists of ignorance, can only be obtained by travel or by a thorough acquaintance with the literature of the different countries. Personal, first-hand intercourse with men of different lands, when the mind is young and plastic, is the best vaccination against the disease. The man who has sat at the feet of Virchow, or has listened to Traube, or Helmholtz, or Cohnheim, can never look with unfriendly eyes at German medicine or German methods. Who ever met with an English or American pupil of Louis or of Charcot, who did not love French medicine, if not for its own sake, at least for the reverence he bore his great master? Let our young men, particularly those who aspire to teaching positions, go abroad. They can find at home laboratories and hospitals as well equipped as any in the world, but they may find abroad more than they knew they sought—widened sympathies, heightened ideals and something perhaps of a Weltcultur which will remain through life as the best protection against the vice of nationalism.

Next to a personal knowledge of men, a knowledge of the literature of the profession of different countries will do much to counteract intolerance and Chauvinism. The great works in the department of medicine in which a man is interested, are not so many that he cannot know their contents, though they be in three or four languages. Think of the impetus French medicine gave to the profession in the first half of the last century, of the debt we all owe to German science in the latter half, and of the lesson of the practical application by the English of sanitation and asepsis! It is one of our chief glories and one of the unique features of the profession that, no matter where the work is done in the world, if of any value, it is quickly utilized. Nothing has contributed more to the denationalization of the profession of this continent than, on the one hand, the ready reception of the good men from the old countries who have cast in their lot with us, and, on the other, the influence of our young men who have returned from Europe with sympathies as wide as the profession itself. There is abroad among us a proper spirit of eclecticism, a willingness to take the good wherever found, that augurs well for the future. It helps a man immensely to be a bit of a hero-worshipper, and the stories of the lives of the masters of medicine do much to stimulate our ambition and rouse our sympathies. If the life and work of such men as Bichat and Laennec will not stir the blood of a young man and make him feel proud of France and of Frenchmen, he must be a dull and muddy mettled rascal. In reading the life of Hunter, of Jenner, who thinks of the nationality which is merged and lost in our interest in the man and in his work? In the halcyon days of the Renaissance there was no nationalism in medicine, but a fine catholic spirit made great leaders like Vesalius, Eustachius, Stensen and others at home in every country in Europe. While this is impossible today, a great teacher of any country may have a world-wide audience in our journal literature, which has done so much to make medicine cosmopolitan.