Medicine – The Growth of Specialism

The restriction of the energies of trained students to narrow fields in science, while not without its faults, has been the most important single factor in the remarkable expansion of our knowledge. Against the disadvantages in a loss of breadth and harmony there is the compensatory benefit of a greater accuracy in the application of knowledge in specialism, as is well illustrated in the cultivation of special branches of practice. Diseases of the skin, of the eye, of the ear, of the throat, of the teeth, diseases of women, and of children are now studied and practised by men who devote all their time to one limited field of work. While not without minor evils, this custom has yielded some of the great triumphs of the profession. Dentistry, ophthalmology, and gynaecology are branches which have been brought to a state of comparative perfection, and very largely by the labours of American physicians. In the last-named branch the blessings which have been brought to suffering women are incalculable, not only as regards the minor ailments of life, but in the graver and more critical accidents to which the sex is liable.

One of the most remarkable and beneficial reforms of the nineteenth century has been in the attitude of the profession and the public to the subject of insanity, and the gradual formation of a body of men in the profession who labour to find out the cause and means of relief of this most distressing of all human maladies. The reform movement inaugurated by Tuke in England, by Rush in the United States, by Pinel and Esquirol in France, and by Jacobi and Hasse in Germany, has spread to all civilized countries, and has led not only to an amelioration and improvement in the care of the insane, but to a scientific study of the subect which has already been productive of much good. In this country, while the treatment of the insane is careful -and humanitarian, the unfortunate affiliation of insanity with politics is still in many States a serious hindrance to progress.

It may be interesting to take a glance at the state of medicine in this country at the opening of the century. There were only three schools of medicine, the most important of which were the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard. There were only two general hospitals. The medical education was chiefly in the hands of the practitioners, who took students as apprentices for a certain number of years. The well-to-do students and those wishing a better class of education went to Edinburgh or London. There were only two or three medical journals, and very few books had been published in the country, and the profession was dependent entirely upon translations from the French and upon English works. The only medical libraries were in connexion with the Pennsylvania Hospital and the New York Hospital. The leading practitioners in the early years were Rush and Physick, in Philadelphia; Hosack and Mitchill, in New York; and James Jackson and John Collins Warren, in Boston. There were throughout the country, in smaller places, men of great capabilities and energy, such as Nathan Smith, the founder of the Medical Schools of Dartmouth and of Yale, and Daniel Drake in Cincinnati. After 1830 a remarkable change took place in the profession, owing to the leaven of French science brought back from Paris by American students. Between 1840 and 1870 there was a great increase in the number of medical schools, but the general standard of education was low—lower, indeed, than had ever before been reached in the medical profession. The private schools multiplied rapidly, diplomas were given on short two-year sessions, and nothing contributed more to the degeneration of the profession than this competition and rivalry between ill-equipped medical schools. The reformation, which started at Harvard shortly after 1870, spread over the entire country, and the rapid evolution of the medical school has been one of the most striking phenomena in the history of medicine in the century. University authorities began to appreciate the fact that medicine was a great department of knowledge, to be cultivated as a science and promoted as an art. Wealthy men felt that in no better way could they contribute to the progress of the race than by the establishment of laboratories for the study of disease and hospitals for the care of the sick poor. The benefactions of Johns Hopkins, of Sims, of Vanderbilt, of Pierpont Morgan, of Strathcona, of Mount-Stephen, of Payne, and of Levi C. Lane and others have placed scientific medicine on a firm basis.

Sanitary science, hygiene, or preventive medicine may claim to be one of the brightest spots in the history of the nineteenth century. Public hygiene was cultivated among the Egyptians, and in the Mosaic law it reached a remarkable organization. The personal hygiene of the Greeks was embraced in the saying, “The fair mind in the fair body,” and the value of exercise and training was fully recognized. The Romans, too, in public and private hygiene, were our superiors in the matter of water supply and baths. But modern sanitary science has a much wider scope and is concerned with the causes of disease quite as much as with the conditions under ,which these diseases prevail. The foundations of the science were laid in the last century with Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. Howard, too, had grasped the association of fever with overcrowding in the jails, while the possibility of the prevention of scurvy had been shown by Captain Cook and by Sir Gilbert Blane.

Preventive medicine was a blundering, incomplete science until bacteriology opened unheard-of possibilities for the prevention of disease. Before discussing some of the victories of preventive medicine it will be well to take a brief survey of the growth of the following subject.