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Should the Physician have a Liberal Education?

Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.

Professor Howe's own experience in his preparation for medicine gives the positive answer to this question. Professor Howe was—as were Professors Scudder and King—a lifelong advocate of higher education—the education which enables one to know and to do. Professor Howe knew the value of a classical training, and would have all physicians so prepared.—Ed. Gleaner.

SHOULD THE PHYSICIAN HAVE A LIBERAL EDUCATION?—The question embraced in the heading was the subject assigned to be written upon and read at Detroit, before the National. The fair M. D. who tackled the topic did not crack a smile while reading a rather graceful paper. She seemed in a serious mood, and disposed to dispense the best of advice. As she made out the case, a medical man should possess a "liberal education," whatever that term may mean. When the essay gets into the Transactions it will be a credit to the publication.

The utterly utter simplicity of the query is what captivates me. There should have been one other of the kind, which might read as follows: "Should a physician possess common sense?" A great many do not, therefore as a topic for the essayist it presents significance. If the President who assigned the topic had been a Thomsonian, it would be plain to comprehend the point to be discussed, for Samuel Thomson ignored a "liberal education," and considered natural common sense better than learning. In this he was correct—but he failed to state what he might think of common sense and learning combined. It is possible for the two qualities to go together.

"A liberal education" has not as yet been cleverly defined, but is presumably at variance with a stinted or cramped education. A "liberal education" once embraced the classics and higher mathematics, but at present the former may be omitted, and physics substituted. A London University matriculant must have something more than a smattering of "Mechanics and Experimental Science," the latter embracing kinematics, dynamics, and statics—all preparatory studies essential to matriculation. Now, to acquire what might pass as a "smattering" of knowledge in the various branches of the science named, how could the learner get along without some classical training? In fact, definitions can not be mastered without a familiarity with Latin and Greek. It will be seen then that what passes as a liberal education logically presupposes a knowledge of the classics. And here I should not be understood as demanding that a medical student must have an acquaintance with Latin and Greek before he enters the medical college—I simply mean that the more liberal his education the easier it will be for him to go to the front.

In a criticism I expressed on the topic—not on the essay—at Detroit, I made the humiliating confession that I knew nothing of "the classics" when I entered a medical college; but finding myself at once in a quagmire of technicals, I resolved to take the shortest way out of the jungle—I bought a "First Lessons" in Latin and Greek Grammar; and when I found I needed a teacher to give me an understanding of these I dropped medicine for six years that I might "fit for college," and take a regular four years' course at Harvard. A less expensive career might have been adopted—a private tutor might have answered quite well. But there is no such leveling course as that to be encountered in a popular university, where individual conceits are knocked higher than a kite—where lofty notions of one's qualities are ruthlessly trampled in the dust—where combatants in physical and mental arenas learn to give and take, and not whimper when beaten.

Yet, when the University curriculum is over, the Bachelor of Arts is not able to earn a living—he is not wanted in the scientific laboratory—he is not fitted to conduct a piece of engineering—he can not determine how many solid and square feet or yards there may be in a piece of architecture—he can not preach in the pulpit nor practice at the bar—and he is totally unfit to set up as a doctor. What, then, is he? Simply prepared to study in a course which leads to the higher walks of a learned vocation.

The man who passes as possessing a liberal education—whether a farmer, mechanic, a chemist, a preacher, or a doctor, is a "hard student" —he studies every day, and never goes to bed till he has learned something he did not know before. If he be a successful practitioner of medicine—have all the patronage he can care for, and more too—he reads understandingly, or inquiringly, some new book or periodical before the day ends. The doctor who has not read Watson's Practice can not appreciate style in the literature of medicine; and the surgeon who has not the Operative Surgery of Velpeau can poorly appreciate what constitutes surgical scholarship.

How often the ingenious writer complains that he can not find some rare case described in "the books"—and he flatters himself, perhaps, that he has discovered something! What books has he consulted? Why, the text-books he carried home from college! How many of them? Possibly ten or twelve—and he is content with the consultation of these? Is he out of patience with the authors or compilers of these "text-books" because everything in the literature of medicine was not embraced in the moderate sized volumes? He is, for it costs money to buy a library, and time to read what may be in the books—to glean a little of value here and there, and to be forced to cast aside stacks of chaff! And the good is to be marked or indexed, that it may be available when needed, though years have escaped since the annotation.

Is the literary road hard to travel? Is it beset with flinty shards and jagging thorns? Is it uninviting in length and weariness? Is it profitless and unsatisfactory? Only those who enter upon its ways appreciate the charms of the journey—at every turn in the road there is a captivating surprise—an allurement to go on and on, till the idea of stopping would be entertained with distress. The acquisition of knowledge is attended with more pleasure than the accumulation of wealth. Besides, scholarly attainments rank higher than riches in the social scale.—HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1888.


The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.



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