Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Apologia for the history of medicine

Recently added to the History of Medicine Collection are eight pamphlets written by J.H. Wythe, M.D., (1822-1901) bringing our grand collection total of Wythe works to nine. Wythe, one of the founders of the Willamette University Medical Department, wrote on topics both medical and spiritual, sometimes bringing them together in discussions of mind-body wellness and the scientific bases of revelation.

In 1886, he was invited to address the graduating class at Cooper Medical College (now Stanford University School of Medicine) and took as his topic "Our indebtedness to the past." Since we get a kick out of justifying our daily exertions with references to authors whose works we continue to preserve, I herein share with you some of Wythe's thoughts (emphases added):

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I desire to remind you of our indebtedness to the past, believing that such remembrance will not only keep you steady on your chosen course, and save you from drifting into currents of unscientific speculation, but will also prove a healthy stimulus to continual advancement....

In every department of life the last quarter of a century has brought many additions to our knowledge and comfort. It is hard to think of anything better, so that a sort of apotheosis of the present age has taken place in some minds, which is rather a hindrance that an advantage to them. It is like removing the scaffolding before the work is done. All the progress of the present is founded upon and made possible only by the attainments of former times. We may neglect or despise the past, yet a truthful study of history will prove it to have been full of excellence....

Medical knowledge ... [is] a river which is fed by numerous rills. It is also a treasure which is committed to its graduates for use and increase. It is no solitary conception, nor exclusive dogma, starting from the genius of a single mind, and carried out more or less faithfully by its followers. It is truth respecting the body and mind of man....

All history shows, however, that those who forsake the traditions and spurn the labors of the past are always ready to follow some ignis fatuus over the quagmire of uncertain speculation....

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Beware the ignis fatuus! For more information on the man behind the words, see Olof Larsell's short biography Joseph Henry Wythe, 1822-1901 available in the PNW Archives.

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