Remarks of Harvard President Charles W. Eliot

The Way We Were

In 1883, Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) — president of Harvard from 1869 until 1909 — praised the "direct personal service to the poor and friendless" that physicians give, more "than all the other professions put together."

"The poorest and most friendless man in the city knows that if he meets with a serious accident or is attacked by a grave disease he is sure of the prompt services of the most skillful surgeons or physicians in the community as soon as he is carried to a hospital."
Eliot went on to single out what had been done for poor working women by "young physicians, not long out of the medical school."

Remarks at the 1883 Annual Dinner of the Massachusetts Medical Society

As I am not a physician, I am at liberty to say some things which need to be said, but which the modesty and reticence of the educated physician prevent him from uttering. From certain public discussions which have attracted popular attention during the past five months, it would be easy for hasty or ignorant people to infer that the medical profession was thoughtless of the poor, indifferent to their sufferings, and careless of their fate. Let me bear my testimony that the facts are all the other way.

I believe that the medical profession in these days, in city and country alike, renders more direct personal service to the poor and friendless, for clear love of doing good and of learning to do more good, than all the other professions put together. Who give daily services without recompense to sick and wounded poor people in thousands of hospitals and dispensaries all over the civilized world? Physicians and surgeons.

The poorest and most friendless man in the city knows that if he meets with a serious accident or is attacked by a grave disease he is sure of the prompt services of the most skillful surgeons or physicians in the community as soon as he is carried to a hospital.

Who care tenderly for friendless mothers, sick children, and deserted infants, patiently exerting their best skill to save life, mitigate suffering, and restore health? The physicians of lying-in-hospitals, children's hospitals, and infant asylums. Is it the lawyers who have learned at last how to bring up motherless babies successfully? No, sir, it is the physicians.

Who established in Boston those admirable nurseries for babies of the poor working women? It was young physicians, not long out of the medical school.

To whom does society owe it that every insane pauper is more humanely and rationally treated to-day than the king's daughter would have been, if insane, two centuries ago? Not immediately to the doctors of theology, or of law, but to the doctors of medicine.

Who has delivered modern society in great measure from those horrible plagues and pestilences, like the black death, the small-pox and the Asiatic cholera which periodically desolated Europe but a few generations ago? The medical profession.

This immense service has not been rendered for pecuniary rewards, or to the rich and great alone, but freely to the poor and humble, and chiefly to them. Indeed, gentlemen, if there are any portions of modern society which have especial reason to be grateful to the medical profession for services already rendered, and to promote the advancement of medical science and the improvement of medical education in the sure hope of still greater benefits to come, it is the poorer and less educated portions.

They have more need of medical and surgical aid than the well-to-do, for their exposures are greater. It is for them to insist in their own interest that what his excellency the governor has felicitously described as "the decent and humane provision of the statute" concerning anatomical science be made effective to the end in view.

Let them not imagine that the educated physician, whose whole life is given to the study and service of the human body and to the alleviation of human suffering, can be without reverence for that body or without sensibility to that suffering. Let them be assured that the improvement of the science and art of medicine is for the common interest of all conditions of men.

Even in the present imperfect state of medical science and education it is a rare family, rich or poor, prosperous or miserable, which has not owed the life of at least one of its members to the skill and courage of some good physician. Even now hardly a man or a woman reaches the meridian of life without having owed relief from agony or escape from untimely death to the medical art.

From the achieved progress of the past hundred years what may we not hope of the coming? It is for all classes of the community to further to their utmost the development of medical knowledge and skill. That way lies the path of mercy, statesmanship, and reverence for humanity.

Originally published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, June 21, 1883.

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