Medicine – The Fixed Period Part 1

AS this is the last public function at which I shall appear as a member of the University, I very gladly embrace the opportunity which it offers to express the mingled feelings of gratitude and sorrow which are naturally in my mind—gratitude to you all for sixteen years of exceptionally happy life, sorrow that I am to belong to you no more. Neither stricken deeply in years, nor damaged seriously by illness, you may well wonder at the motives that have induced me to give up a position of such influence and importance, to part from colleagues so congenial, from associates and students so devoted, and to leave a country in which I have so many warm friends, and in which I have been appreciated at so much more than my real worth. It is best that you stay in the wonder-stage. Who can understand another man’s motives? Does he always understand his own? This much I may say in explanation —not in palliation. After years of hard work, at the very time when a man’s energies begin to flag, and when he feels the need of more leisure, the conditions and surroundings that have made him what he is and that have moulded his character and abilities into something useful in the community—these very circumstances ensure an ever increasing demand upon them; and when the call of the East comes, which in one form or another is heard by all of us, and which grows louder as we grow older, the call may come like the summons to Elijah, and not alone the ploughing of the day, but the work of a life, friends, relatives, even father and mother, are left to take up new work in a new field. Or, happier far, if the call comes, as it did to Puran Das in Kipling’s story, not to new labours, but to a life “private, unactive, calm, contemplative.”

There are several problems in university life suggested by my departure. It may be asked in the first place, whether metabolism is sufficiently active in the professoriate body, is there change enough? May not the loss of a professor bring stimulating benefits to a university? We have not here lost very many—this is not a university that men care to leave—but in looking over its history I do not see that the departure of any one has proved a serious blow. It is strange of how slight value is the unit in a great system. A man may have built up a department and have gained a certain following, local or general; nay, more, he may have had a special value for his mental and moral qualities, and his fission may leave a scar, even an aching scar, but it is not for long. Those of us accustomed to the process know that the organism as a whole feels it about as much as a big polyzoon when a colony breaks off, or a hive of bees after a swarm—’tis not indeed always a calamity, oftentimes it is a relief. Of course upon a few the sense of personal loss falls heavily; in a majority of us the faculty of getting attached to those with whom we work is strongly developed, and some will realize the bitterness of the lines :—-

Alas! that all we loved of him should be But for our grief as if it had not been.

But to the professor himself these partings belong to the life he has chosen. Like the hero in one of Matthew Arnold’s poems, he knows that his heart was not framed to be `long loved.’ Change is the very marrow of his existence—a new set of students every year, a new set of assistants, a new set of associates every few years to replace those called off to other fields; in any active department there is no constancy, no stability in the human surroundings. And in this there is an element of sadness. A man comes into one’s life for a few years, and you become attached to him, interested in his work and in his welfare, and perhaps you grow to love him, as a son, and then off he goes !—leaving you with a bruised heart.

The question may be asked—whether as professors we do not stay too long in one place. It passes my persimmon to tell how some good men—even lovable and righteous men in other respects—have the hardihood to stay in the same position for twenty-five years! To a man of active mind too long attachment to one college is apt to breed self-satisfaction, to narrow his outlook, to foster a local spirit, and to promote senility. Much of the phenomenal success of this institution has been due to the concentration of a group of light-horse intellectuals, without local ties, whose operations were not restricted, whose allegiance indeed was not always national, yet who were willing to serve faithfully in whatever field of action they were placed. And this should be the attitude of a vigilant professoriate. As St. Paul preferred an evangelist without attachments, as more free for the work, so in the general interests of higher education a University President should cherish a proper nomadic spirit in the members of his faculties, even though it be on occasions a seeming detriment. A well-organized College Trust could arrange a rotation of teachers which would be most stimulating all along the line. We are apt to grow stale and thin mentally if kept too long in the same pasture. Transferred to fresh fields, amid new surroundings and other colleagues, a man gets a fillip which may last for several years. Interchange of teachers, national and inter-national, will prove most helpful. How bracing the Turn-bull lectures have been, for example. It would be an excellent work for the University Association which met here recently to arrange this interchange of instructors. Even to ‘swap’ College Presidents now and then might be good for the exchequer. We have an excellent illustration of the value of the plan in the transfer this year from Jena of Prof. Keutgen to give the lectures on History. An international university clearing-house might be organized to facilitate the work. How delightful it would be to have a return to the mediaeval practice when the professor roamed Europe at his sweet will, or to the halcyon era of the old Greek teachers—of which Empedocles sings:

what days were those Parmenides! When we were young, when we could number friends In all the Italian cities like ourselves; When with elated hearts we joined your train Ye Sun-born Virgins on the road of truth.

It is more particularly upon the younger men that I would urge the advantages of an early devotion to a peripatetic philosophy of life. Just so soon as you have your second teeth think of a change; get away from the nurse, cut the apron strings of your old teachers, seek new ties in a fresh environment, if possible where you can have a certain measure of freedom and independence. Only do not wait for a fully equipped billet almost as good as that of your master. A small one, poorly appointed, with many students and few opportunities for research, may be just what is needed to bring out the genius—latent and perhaps unrecognized—that will enable you in an unfavourable position to do well what another could not do at all, even in the most helpful surroundings. There are two appalling diseases which only a feline restlessness of mind and body may head off in young men in the academic career. There is a remarkable bodily condition, known as infantilism, in which adolescence does not come at the appointed time, or is deferred until the twentieth year or later, and is then incomplete, so that the childish mind and the childish form and features remain. The mental counterpart is even more common among us. Intellectual infantilism is a well recognized disease, and just as imperfect nutrition may cause failure of the marvellous changes which accompany puberty in the body, so the mind too long fed on the same diet in one place may be rendered rickety or even infantile. Worse than this may happen. A rare, but still more extraordinary, bodily state is that of progeria, in which, as though touched with the wand of some malign fairy, the child does not remain infantile, but skips adolescence, maturity and manhood, and passes at once to senility, looking at eleven or twelve years like a miniature Tithonus “marred and wasted,” wrinkled and stunted, a little old man among his toys. It takes great care on the part of any one to live the mental life corresponding to the phases through which his body passes. How few minds reach puberty, how few come to adolescence, how fewer attain maturity! It is really tragic —this wide-spread prevalence of mental infantilism due to careless habits of intellectual feeding. Progeria is an awful malady in a college. Few Faculties escape without an instance or two, and there are certain diets which cause it just as surely as there are waters in some of the Swiss valleys that produce cretinism. I have known an entire faculty attacked. The progeric himself is a nice enough fellow to look at and to play with, but he is sterile, with the mental horizon narrowed, and quite incapable of assimilating the new thoughts of his day and generation.

As in the case of many other diseases, it is more readily prevented than cured, and, taken early, change of air and diet may do much to antagonize a tendency, inherited or acquired. Early stages may be relieved by a prolonged stay at the University Baths of Berlin or Leipzic, or if at the proper time a young man is transferred from an American or Anglican to a Gallic or Teutonic diet. Through no fault of the men, but of the system, due to the unfortunate idea on the part of the denominations that in each one of the States they should have their own educational institutions, collegiate infantilism is far too prevalent, against which the freer air and better diet of the fully equipped State Universities is proving a rapid, as it is the rational, antidote.

Nor would I limit this desire for change to the teachers. The student of the technical school should begin his wanderjahre early, not postponing them until he has taken his M.D. or Ph.D. A residence of four years in the one school is apt to breed prejudice and to promote mental astigmatism which the after years may never be able to correct. One great difficulty is the lack of harmony in the curricula of the schools, but this time will correct and, once initiated and encouraged, the better students will take a year, or even two years, in schools other than those at which they intend to graduate.

I am going to be very bold and touch upon another question of some delicacy, but of infinite importance in university life: one that has not been settled in this country. I refer to a fixed period for the teacher, either of time of service or of age. Except in some proprietary schools, I do not know of any institutions in which there is a time limit of, say, twenty years’ service, as in some of the London hospitals, or in which a man is engaged for a term of years. Usually the appointment is ad vitam aut culpam, as the old phrase reads. It is a very serious matter in our young universities to have all of the professors growing old at the same time. In some places, only an epidemic, a time limit, or an age limit can save the situation. I have two fixed ideas well known to my friends, harmless obsessions with which I sometimes bore them, but which have a direct bearing on this important problem. The first is the comparative uselessness of men above forty years of age. This may seem shocking, and yet read aright the world’s history bears out the statement. Take the sum of human achievement in action, in science, in art, in literature-subtract the work of the men above forty, and while we should miss great treasures, even priceless treasures, we would practically be where we are today. It is difficult to name a great and far-reaching conquest of the mind which has not been given to the world by a man on whose back the sun was still shining. The effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty—these fifteen golden years of plenty, the anabolic or constructive period, in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and the credit is still good. In the science and art of medicine young or comparatively young men have made every advance of the first rank. Vesalius, Harvey, Hunter, Bichat, Laennec, Virchow, Lister, Koch—the green years were yet upon their heads when their epoch-making studies were made. To modify an old saying, a man is sane morally at thirty, rich mentally at forty, wise spiritually at fifty—or never. The young men should be encouraged and afforded every possible chance to show what is in them. If there is one thing more than another upon which the professors of this university are to be congratulated it is this very sympathy and fellowship with their junior associates, upon whom really in many departments, in mine certainly, has fallen the brunt of the work. And herein lies the chief value of the teacher who has passed his climacteric and is no longer a productive factor, he can play the man midwife as Socrates did to Theaetetus, and determine whether the thoughts which the young men are bringing to the light are false idols or true and noble births.

My second fixed idea is the uselessness of men above sixty years of age, and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political and in professional life if, as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age. In his Biathanatos Donne tells us that by the laws of certain wise states sexagenarii were precipitated from a bridge, and in Rome men of that age were not admitted to the suffrage and they were called Depontani because the way to the senate was per pontem, and they from age were not permitted to come thither. In that charming novel, The Fixed Period, Anthony Trollope discusses the practical advantages in modern life of a return to this ancient usage, and the plot hinges upon the admirable scheme of a college into which at sixty men retired for a year of contemplation before a peaceful departure by chloroform. That incalculable benefits might follow such a scheme is apparent to any one who, like myself, is nearing the limit, and who has made a careful study of the calamities which may befall men during the seventh and eighth decades. Still more when he contemplates the many evils which they perpetuate unconsciously, and with impunity. As it can be maintained that all the great advances have come from men under forty, so the history of the world shows that a very large proportion of the evils may be traced to the sexagenarians—nearly all the great mistakes politically and socially, all of the worst poems, most of the bad pictures, a majority of the bad novels, not a few of the bad sermons and speeches. It is not to be denied that occasionally there is a sexagenarian whose mind, as Cicero remarks, stands out of reach of the body’s decay. Such a one has learned the secret of Hermippus, that ancient Roman who feeling that the silver cord was loosening cut himself clear from all companions of his own age and betook himself to the company of young men, mingling with their games and studies, and so lived to the age of 153, puerorum halitu refocillatus et educatus. And there is truth in the story, since it is only those who live with the young who maintain a fresh outlook on the new problems of the world. The teacher’s life should have three periods, study until twenty-five, investigation until forty, profession until sixty, at which age I would have him retired on a double allowance. Whether Anthony Trollope’s suggestion of a college and chloroform should be carried out or not I have become a little dubious, as my own time is getting so short. (I may say for the benefit of the public that with a woman I would advise an entirely different plan, since, after sixty her influence on her sex may be most helpful, particularly if aided by those charming accessories, a cap and a fichu.)