Kipling and Medicine

(by Gillian Sheehan)

Early interest

For a time Kipling had seriously considered studying medicine. In a speech he gave to the Society of Medical Phonographers in November 1897, he recalled how he had bought three crib books for sixpence and had been allowed “to play about the outskirts of St. Mary’s Hospital, at Paddington, where he had picked up a great deal of the half-knowledge which in medical matters is a very dangerous thing”. [The Daily Mail, 27th November, 1897.]

To enter a medical school in Kipling’s day it was essential to have a good knowledge of Latin. He would probably have had to sit an examination in Latin. A crib book had a Latin text on one page and the English translation on the facing page. The student who was not very good at Latin would learn the English version off by heart, and try to memorise some of the Latin headings. Then, if he was lucky in the examination and got a piece he recognised, he could produce a satisfactory translation, although still knowing very little Latin. Even for a student who was good at Latin, as Kipling was, a crib book could save a lot of time, especially if it contained texts he had not covered in school.

According to Kipling’s sister, Trix :

…for a while, Ruddy had a fancy to be a doctor ; I think he regarded it from the noble point of view as an ideal profession. But a wise friend of our aunt’s took him to a post-mortem. Ruddy never described it to me; all he said was, “Oh, Infant … I believe I threw up my immortal soul.” He threw up anyway the idea of doctoring. [Alice Macdonald Fleming, “My Brother, Rudyard Kipling”, the Kipling Journal, Vol.xiv, No.84, December 1947.]

Experience as a journalist in India

But Kipling retained a great interest in medical matters all his life. And, through his work as a journalist, he attempted to draw attention to various issues which were liable to result in illness or death. His father thought he was writing nonsense about sanitation when he was at school. Possibly he was – then. But a few years later he was at loggerheads with the Municipal Authorities in Lahore. The “Big Calcutta Stink” also attracted his attention, but again, his efforts apparently had no effect on the Municipal Authorities there.

Kipling used his experiences as a journalist to great advantage in some of his stories. In From Sea To Sea, Vol.1, he described a Dispensary in Boondi. In The Naulahka he described a hospital which was very similar. The fictitious one was filthy, but the real one he found to be clean. He remembered one of the patients at Boondi – “one incorrigible idiot, a handsome yound man, naked as the day, who sat in the sunshine,….” The Doctor “had tried blisters and setons”, and native and English treatment for two years without any improvement in his condition. In The Naulahka he wrote: “In the full glare of the sunlight stood a young man almost absolutely unclothed, his hands clasped behind his head, trying to outstare the sun.” The doctor, Lalla Dhunpat Rai, said he was “a confirmed lunatic”, and he had “blistered and cupped him very severely”. Both the operation-book in the Dispensary and the day-book in the hospital at Rhatore recorded ‘loin-bite’among the principal complaints. This was ‘lion-bite’, or tiger, “if you insist upon zoological accuracy”.

He also used his own experiences of fever, insomnia, migraine, and depression in many of his stories. But he had such a ‘blotting-paper’ mind that if something was described to him, he could remember and describe the event just as if he had been present. There were no major famines in India during Kipling’s time there, but reading “William the Conqueror”, one would think he had been present and had reported on at least one serious famine. When he visited Canton with the Hills in 1889 he was able to write a detailed account of a man being beheaded on the execution ground. But according to Mrs Hill he had fever and had not witnessed the execution.

The Boer War

During the Boer War the “Absent-Minded Beggar Fund” helped to supply drugs, tobacco and clothing to injured troops in South Africa. As well as writing the verses that gave the Fund its name, Kipling personally delivered a lot of the supplies to hospitals in South Africa. His reports from his trip on the hospital train, “With Number Three” (published in the “Daily Mail”, 21-25 April 1900), would have done much to reassure those at home that their loved ones who had been wounded in South Africa were being cared for properly. But the “carelessness, officialdom and ignorance” of some of the military authorities infuriated him, and he blamed them for much of the death rate.

Medical friends

Among his medical friends were Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, who introduced Kipling to medical history ; Sir William Gowers, an eminent London neurologist, who is thought to have helped him with the medical details for “Love-O’Women” ; Sir John Bland Sutton who was a frequent visitor to Bateman’s. He and his hospital, the Middlesex, were portrayed as ‘Sir James Belton’ and ‘St Peggotty’s’ in “The Tender Achilles”. Alfred Frolich treated Kipling and his family for minor ailments during winter sporting holidays in Switzerland. Dr James Conland, the General Practitioner at Brattleboro, in Vermont, was the best friend Kipling made in New England. He helped with a lot of the practical details for Captains Courageous.


Kipling had an interesting library of medical books. After his death they were given to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons by his widow, Carrie Kipling, through the offices of Sir Alfred Webb-Johnson. Many were presentation copies of works by his friend Sir John Bland Sutton. Some were books on medical history. There was even a book on the history of embalming. He had an undated copy of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and a seventeenth century copy of Gerard’s Herbal, an eighteenth century book on human anatomy, a monograph on the tsetse flies (1903) and leechbook of 1934.

The Great War

During the First World War, despite being broken-hearted at the loss of his son, reported ‘wounded and missing’ after the Battle of Loos, Kipling was as busy as ever, writing various propaganda articles, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals, making ‘scrapbooks’ of pictures for those too ill or shocked to concentrate on reading. All the time he was remembering what he had seen or had described to him, so even years later, he was able to write on the effects of poison-gas, or shellshock.

Kipling and medical history

Much of the medicine Kipling wrote about is now medical history. His descriptions of smallpox vaccination in “The Tomb Of His Ancestors” and “Their Lawful Occasions” is, at least for the present, relegated to that category. The locomotor ataxia in “Love-o’Women” is now, thankfully, medical history also. But malaria, the fever mentioned in so many of the stories, is still responsible for killing a child every nine seconds. Tuberculosis is rearing its ugly head again, and new drug-resistant strains are a serious problem. However its treatment did not follow along the lines Kipling had in mind when he wrote “With The Night Mail”. But in “Unprofessional” he broke new ground with his “tides” which would now be called “circadian rhythms”. He may also have written a story about the curing of disease by sound. (Mentioned by J H McGivering, “A Lost Story” the Kipling Journal, Vol.67, No.265, March 1993, p.40). Unfortunately this story has been lost and we will never know if it was a prediction of treatment by ultrasound.

Kipling’s legacy to English literature is well-known and loved. The topics surveyed in this article illustrate his legacy to medical history.