Short Story: ‘A Quack’s Confession’
The man was certainly ill. We all agreed about that. He was unconscious. He had a high fever. His breathing and pulse-rate was irregular. On rare occasions he would regain consciousness—but then he would just babble nonsensically, or leap about making frantic gestures. Everyone had to admit that there was something wrong. This was not how folk ought to behave. Undoubtedly, he was ill.
Furthermore, we all said something should be done about it. A few advocated prayer, others punishment. But most of us rejected such foolish advice. We were determined to treat his illness properly, medically and effect his cure.
“The correct treatment is quite apparent,” said one. “The patient is unconscious, so we must wake him up. We can do this by shaking him vigorously, and by sounding loud noises in his ear.”
“Perfect!” cried another. “And since he has a temperature we must cool him down. Let us submerge his body in icy water.”
“Naturally,” said a third. “And to regularise his breathing we must connect an air pump to his lungs, and be careful to work it by the clock.”
In due course they fixed on a plan by which the sick man would receive all these types of medical care. To their surprise, however, after days of the most intensive treatment the patient did not seem to be improving. I thought his condition had worsened, but my companions indignantly rejected this suggestion, and not a few of them maintained (with deep conviction) that our man was on the mend. “Only a soulless cynic could deny that we have made progress,” someone remarked, with a contemptuous glance in my direction.
At this I felt I had to speak out. “My knowledge of medicine is very slight,” I told them. “But I do think we’ve been setting about this problem in the wrong manner. It seems to me that these disorders which you have been treating: the temperature, the irregular pulse and so on—these are but symptoms of something deeper. I think we should discover the cause of the illness and treat that.”
At this there was, first of all, a great deal of laughter, but when I persisted, amusement turned into annoyance. One of my friends, a little kindlier than the rest, told me: “I can appreciate your concern. When I was your age I too had these high-flown ideas. However, we’ve a practical job to do now, and we’re doing it as well as we can. These abstract notions of yours may sound all right in theory, but you must remember: medicine is the science of the possible.”
“The so-called treatment you’re using isn’t curing the patient,” I remonstrated. “If you never tackle the roots of the ailment, he will never recover. You may even be responsible for his death.”
“That’s going too far,” I was rebuked. “Cherish your own ideals if you want to, but don’t cast aspersions on decent people who are doing a necessary job. We’re extremely devoted to our medical work, and it makes my blood boil to hear the irresponsible suggestion that it’s all in vain. We cannot expect overnight miracles, after all.”
Throughout all these conversations, the patient was groaning pitifully, and was therefore ducked in even colder water, shaken yet more roughly, submitted to louder and louder noises, etc. I was infuriated and went off to consult some books on medicine and physiology, where I soon discovered the cause of our patient’s infirmity. As a matter of fact it is quite a simple virus, and very easy to eradicate.
But I could never persuade the others to listen to me, and they came increasingly to think of me as an obstructive person with a dangerous obsession. At length I was becoming such a nuisance that they had me locked up. I have been in this prison cell ever since. I am allowed newspapers, and in all of them I read that the patient is about to recover.
Yesterday I had a visitor—my fiercest opponent, the one who had denounced me more heatedly than anybody else, the one who was most dedicated to the view that only symptoms should be treated. “I’m genuinely sorry to see you here,” he said. And I could see that he was.
“This may surprise you, but I personally feel there may be a lot in what you say. I couldn’t come out on your side though. All these ideas about viruses are far too much in advance of the thinking of ordinary people. We must educate them gradually. In time, if we keep on treating symptoms, they will come to see that we must eventually eradicate the cause as well. I admire your stand, but we must be realistic, and not move ahead of the times.”
With that, and a promise that I would be more comfortable, he shook me warmly by the hand and left.
All the same, it is extremely lonely here in the cell, and sometimes, at night, I am awakened by the patient’s screams of agony.
David Ramsay Steele