Friday, October 23, 2009

Hard to bring a good man down

Reading through some information on the life and times of Kenneth Alexander James Mackenzie, MD (1859-1920), founding member and second dean of the University of Oregon Medical School, I came across an editorial printed in Northwest Medicine (19:104, 1920) less than a month after Mackenzie's death at the age of 61 on March 15, 1920.

Evidencing the interests of editor and reader alike, nearly half of the two-page eulogy is dedicated to the causes of Mackenzie's death. These are many, but whether they are scientifically proven or postulated for the greater glory of the subject is unclear. While the proximate cause seemed indisputably to be angina pectoris, this is traced back to an infection Mackenzie developed after a surgical operation "about 1900", which led to acute endocarditis. In addition, we learn that he had been weakened by acute gastroduodenitis and cholecystitis which necessitated six weeks of bed rest during the summer of 1919. Also blamed is a bout of influenza that came upon Mackenzie two weeks before his death.

Lastly, the writer blames the Great War:
"He was greatly affected by it and on many occasions discussed it publicly in a manner characterized by vigor of expression, courage and high patriotism. There was but one side of the fence for him. He wanted the war fought and fought to a finish and no one who ever heard him discuss it was in doubt as to where he stood.... He was omnipresent, enthusiastic, encouraging and active in the prosecution of the cause of the Allies against the Hun.... and it is not impossible that he gave his life for his country quite as much as they gave theirs who died upon the battle fields of Flanders."
I think there's a research paper in this. Do obituaries written by medical men for medical men tend to exaggerate the causes of death, to make the defeat seem the more noble, or excusable? If only some do so, is it a reflection of the culture in which the piece was written--the deification of the physician above the ordinary man, the setting apart of this special breed who care for the suffering, the diseased, the lame? What do these memorials tell us about physicians' self-perceptions and about the funerary practices of the cult of Asclepius? Discuss!

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