On Listening to the Wise Men

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IT must be a terrible thing to be loaded down with TERMS—to have your head so jammed crammed full of Science that you have no room for Sense. That seems to be the chronic state of the American Medical Association’s representatives who have been holding forth in San Francisco. By their own testimony they know all about disease. They know how it looks. They know how it acts. They can tell you all about a bug (any bug), from the time it begins to quiver till you begin to quake. They can state it in terms that would make the covers of any dictionary curl with envy. But after that? You are quietly dismissed with no more than the searing memory that not a single challenge was hurled at the cause of you and your brothers’ distress. Pitiful, yes. But not alone that. It is a preposterous piece of charlatanism for a body of scientific men to lay claim to advisorship and not in a single instance assail the soil which makes for the infection they pretend to combat. Bugs, yes. But all the bugs have not been put to the test of the microscope. If anybody doubts this let him give one of these “ology” experts a hearing. He will come away wiser about terms but dumb and still wondering about Tears.

They told us about Plagues. They said there was a Red one and a White and and a Bubonic one. They said that the White one was eating us alive but that the Red one was worse. They showed this to be a fact by flashing pictures of the Red Plague’s inroads. And then they quoted that would-be Limiter-of-Life, Dr. Osier, to prove that over seventy-nine per cent, of all our ills are directly attributable to either gonorrhea or syphilis. Even such innocent little home maladies as rheumatism, it would seem must hereafter come under the head of Red Plague infection, largely, not to mention sterility, bride-appendicitis and middle-age stricture. Peevish gentlemen and complaining spouses may argue their heads off about incompatibility of temper, but while spirochete and gonococci remain in charge of impotent organs, it will avail nothing to implore relief at the hands of governing bodies. The asylums, the jails, the homes, the hospitals, all combine to furnish the quota demanded by this ravager of life and limb. And it grows apace in spite of remedies, in spite of Wassermanns, in spite of claimed cures which are by many supposed to successfully resist its advance.

THESE things were admitted freely, but after admitting them these pompous pinheads stopped short and were silent. It would be interesting to know why they stopped. Were they afraid? Or was it because their interest did not extend beyond the mere exhibition of discovery? There must have been some men there who knew why we have gonorrhea, why we have syphilis, why we suffer at the hands of a scourge that could be checked if not obliterated. Some must have known. Why did they not speak? Why not one voice at least which should say: “You are rotten! You are insane. Your laws are vicious. Your schemes are death-laden. And your morality a stench in the nostrils of health!” Why did not such an one—if he listened and felt, thrill the rafters with the plaint of fearless protest? WHY? Perhaps a word from the audience will tell why.

The writer stood at the rear of the hall listening. A stately, well-dressed old lady approached, hauteur in her mien and temper in her eye.

“Why do they discuss such things as sif-lus?” she said. “I think it’s dreadful to talk openly like this about such things.”

“Perhaps, madam,” was the answer, “if we knew more about such things we wouldn’t have so much of them.”

“Well,” she replied, “I am seventy-four years old and I never had it, and I can’t see the sense of talking about it.”

Would any but a fool press old age farther? George Eliot says you can’t put new twists in old twigs. And that seems to be the case.

Another woman who said she was of the newspaper fraternity stood by.

“Isn’t it terrible?” she ventured. “What are we coming to?”

“We’re not ‘coming,’“ was the rejoinder. “We have arrived.”

“But something ought to be done when it gets this bad,” she answered.

“If the people would throw the leeches off their backs and stop worshiping false standards of morality, this state of affairs wouldn’t last,” was the retort.

“But that would mean revolution,” said the timid person growing bold. “We couldn’t have anything like that!”

NO, madam. We probably won’t have anything like that for a long time to come. There are so many like you active and about. But meantime you may have a child. Your neighbors may have children. Your children may have children. And it is a ten to one shot the circle of snufflers will be increased by just so many individuals. You evidently don’t know what half-moon teeth mean. Wouldn’t recognize them if you saw them. But wait till you touch your eye with a cloth or something that has come in contact with the vigorous cocci that are multiplying while you sleep. Then you will know and weep. Which is a pity as it will be a tragedy.

A PROMINENT San Francisco woman physician addressed the Nurses’ Association, which is also holding its yearly convention in the Exposition City. She had this to say of instruction along sex lines: “Sex education should be as much a part of the daily teaching as patriotism.” This, from a woman supposedly learned—a member of the California Board of Health I If a brick-laying ignoramus coupled patriotism with sex we would check his enthusiasm off to mugginess and tab the conclusion as the verdict of a befogged mind. We expect a little more from the intelligence that can grapple successfully with disease. We expect it.

One medico emitted the astonishing accusation that the reason our health is impaired is because the ladies— at home and abroad, don’t pay the proper attention to the art of cookery. “You should feed us better and we’d be all right,” was his half-cocked finale. One of his hearers had a picture of under-paid shop girls, of toast burned on gas jets, of foodless factory hours and fretful infants, of aching frames, of disease rampant. That same person much regretted he had not a soiled egg or two to present to the gentleman in order that he might know the smell if not the taste of that sweet portion we give to our “worthy” poor.

The world is old but knowledge is young. Sometimes —when the fog is thick, it isn’t easy to see a light ahead. But it always helps to close your eyes and feel the light —even when you can’t see it.

David Leigh, “On Listening to the Wise Men,” Mother Earth 10, no. 6 (August 1915): 215-?.