Mark Twain and Medicine: A Review of Sorts

Richard Talbot


I am not a reviewer of books. I am a consumer of Health Care, and it was only after rereading Mark Twain and Medicine: “Any Mummery Will Cure.” by K. Patrick Ober, (MD), University of Missouri Press, 2003, that my one world impinged on the other and I felt the need to speak of this book to other Mark Twain enthusiasts. My friend “Dr.” Kevin Mac Donnell of Texas reviewed this book for the Mark Twain Forum in 2004 and there is very little to add to his comprehensive survey of Dr. Ober’s work. At that time, Kevin stated, “Ober’s work will certainly… provoke new insights into some previously accepted diagnoses.”

When I consulted with my surgeon, a wise and caring man, he realized immediately what I needed: a healthy fear of God and a dose of staphylococcus bacteria. He didn’t have any of the microbes on hand at the clinic where I saw him but he knew where he could lay hands on plenty, so he sent me to the hospital. There on the operating table I was given what I needed which later, when the lab confirmed their success, I was informed that the staph had gone to my heart. It was then that the healing balm of antibiotics was administered along with the aforementioned fear of God. The caring men and women of medicine have always served me well. It is with this, a grateful heart and other medical mishaps in mind I wish to add the following regarding this book.

You need only know that the first time I read a thing I do it for fun. The second time through I use the yellow marker and do the underlining. The third time through I make notes in a notebook and the final read is when I put important stuff–stuff that will be on the test–on flash cards. I’ve finished my second reading of Ober’s book and even though I know better, I want to share two “summaries” with you.

First Read through:

“Excellent. Jolly good read. Can’t believe this doctor wrote such a good book. Terrific addition to the Twain Body of expertise. ”

Second Read through:

“Stunning. To read and understand the times in which Twain lived and to have explained to the reader the primitive level of understanding common to the so-called medical community of that era is to discover & know how little we knew then about medicine. But wait, there’s more. To read this book in the year 2009 is to reckon how very little time has passed since then, and if one is honest with one’s self, to fully comprehend how totally screwed we all are today when we fool ourselves into believing that today’s doctors really know anything about any thing.”

If a doctor practices a full forty years we are but three generations past the day when healers could easily kill you if you didn’t get out of their way. Seriously, would you trust your child’s life into the hands of a surgeon whose progenitor could fairly say, “Yep, my great grandpappy bled George Washington to death.”? Would you trust the health of your wife to a physician who could brag, “My dad was a doctor at Pearl Harbor and they always dressed the burn victims real good with gauze and Vaseline”? Penicillin, an experimental drug, would not be used until it was forced to be used in December of 1942 after the Boston Cocoanut Grove fire left so many horribly burned and suffering.

Yes, medicine has come a long way or so we would like to think, and Patrick Ober takes you back into the not-so-distant past in a way that is illuminating and at the same time chilling. It is easy to conjecture that far less than 100 years from now our grandchildren will marvel at 21st Century medicine and chuckle, “In the twenty-first century they still used poison (chemotherapy) on cancer patients. Yes, poison. They gave it to them intentionally and their hair fell out and they vomited for days. Isn’t that funny?”

Yes, it’s very funny, just like bleeding someone to death is funny. But when you consider that you yourself are living in the twenty-first century and have oft comforted yourself with remarks such as, “Ah, the marvels of modern medicine”…

We all believe in modern medicine, we all hope for rapid advancements; after all, it might be one of our kids who grows up and finds the cure for HMOs.

Dr. Ober gives us more than a glance over our shoulders at the past, and makes us intelligently shudder to contemplate that we might well have need of putting a family member, a loved one, into the hands of “modern-day” healers.

To know Twain and to love Twain is good. To understand him in the time he lived is better. To remain ignorant, however, whether it be of anatomy, the dangerous currents that lie just beneath the surface of the river or how perilously close we live to iatrogenic death is best of all.

You can’t understand Twain if you don’t understand his Times, just as you can’t understand the Beatles if you don’t understand Beatlemania. Dr. Mac Donnell and I concur: Rx: read Ober’s book and you will be repaid ten times over.

Twain loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, and with a love like that, you know you should be glad.

Richard Talbot copyright 8 21 09

Richard Talbot is a freelance nonfiction journalist living in Minnesota. It is his particular bent to see the most uncommon aspects of the most common things. His work has appeared in newspaper, magazines, professional journals, and reprints have appeared in the U.K. and the Asian market in Korean translation.

3 responses

  1. Right on! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. […] Mark Twain and Medicine Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Academic Society, Huck Finn, Humor Studies, Mark Twain ← The third best gift of all: The Muppets and Laughter Book of Knowledge → No comments yet […]

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