A Book of Words – XXIII

Selections from speeches and addresses delivered between 1906 and 1927

“Surgeons and the Soul”

Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn, 14 February 1923

Notes edited by Leonee Ormond


Published in The Times 15 February 1923, page 7. Collected in A Book of Words, Macmillan, London, 1928, with some variations in the text.


Kipling was speaking at the Annual Dinner of the Royal College of Surgeons, held on the anniversary of the birth of John Hunter. Sir Anthony Bowlby (1855-1929), the President of the Royal College, proposed a toast to ‘The Memory of John Hunter’ from the chair. He then proposed a toast to the visitors, to which the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Cave (1856-1928), replied.

Kipling proposed a toast to the ‘Hunterian Orator’, his friend and doctor, Sir John Bland-Sutton (1855-1936), who had delivered the Oration in the afternoon. Among the other guests were the Lord Mayor of London, Edward C. Moore, the heads of several of the City Guilds, the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), and the painter and Slade Professor, Henry Tonks (1862-1937). A leading article in The Times (17 February 1923, page 11) drew upon Kipling’s speech, praising his contention that writers and scientists are working towards the same end.

Kipling was very interested in matters medical, and was friendly with many doctors. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s article on “Doctors Kipling knew”. See also “Unprofessional” and “The Tender Achilles” in Limits and Renewals, “In the Same Boat” in A Diversity of Creatures. and “Marklake Witches” and “A Doctor of Medicine” in Rewards and Fairies. See also “Doctors or Medicine” in our database of “Themes in Kipling’s works.”

In his speech Kipling narrated a legend of the ancient gods, forced to agree that man had a right to godhead. They decide to conceal it from him, but cannot think of a safe place, until Brahm announces that he has hidden it within man himself, a place which will never be found. Through the ages, doctors and surgeons have discovered more about man but the quest continues.

Notes on the Text

(the page and line numbers below refer to the Uniform Edition of A Book of Words Macmillan, London 1928)

[Page 223 line 1] Hunterian oration in memory of John Hunter (1728-93) and his brother, William Hunter (1718-83), distinguished eighteenth century anatomists whose work contributed greatly to surgical science.

[Page 223 line 2] Sir John Bland- Sutton see background note to
Speech VII.

[Page 223 line 4] Honour the Physician Ecclesiasticus 38.1: ‘Honour a physician with the honour due unto him for the uses which ye may have of him’. [In the Apochrypha.]

[Page 223 line 14] ergotise poison with ergot, a diseased seed of rye and other grasses.

[Page 223 line 16] madder a herbaceous climbing plant with small yellowish flowers,
cultivated for a reddish-violet dye.

[Page 224 line 25] the God Brahm the supreme god of post-vedic Hindu mythology.

[Page 225 line 7] Born of Woman Kipling may be echoing the opening words of the prayer at the Grave in the Burial Service as set out in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England: ‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live’.

[Page 225 lines 8-9] seven deadly sins anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony, lechery, pride and sloth.

[Page 225 line 20] Leech a physician, now an archaic or jocular term.

[Page 227 lines 14-15] the College of Surgeons The Fellowship of Surgeons became the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800.



©Leonee Ormond 2011 All rights reserved