A Book of Words – XXXIII

“Healing by the Stars”

by Rudyard Kipling

The Grave-stone, heavy with grief, says:—’Earth availed not to save my dead.
Watchers of the sick, look up now to the over-regarding stars.’


WHEN FELLOW-GUESTS—1 don’t know how it is with you, but, when a medical man approaches me in the language of compliment, I am filled with an uneasy suspicion that somebody’s tobacco is going to be rationed. That possibility, however, is behind us for this evening, so we can the better appreciate Colonel MacArthur’s flattering diagnosis of our several virtues and merits. Some of us must have all of the symptoms indicated. I have one. I am a story-teller.

Lord Dawson, Members of the Royal Society of Medicine, gentlemen, and ladies, will you lend me your patience while I tell a perfectly true story?

Nearly 300 years ago there was an astrologer-physician, called Nicholas Culpeper, practising in Spitalfields. And it happened that a friend’s maid-servant fell sick with what the local practitioner diagnosed as plague. Culpeper was called in as a second opinion. When he arrived the family were packing up the beds, preparatory to going away and leaving the girl to die. He took charge. There was no silly nonsense about looking for the characteristic plague tongue. He only asked at what hour the young woman had taken to her bed. That gave him, as I need not tell you, ‘the hour of the decumbiture.’ He then erected a horoscope, and ‘inquired of the face of the Heavens how the malady might prove.’ The face of the heavens indicated it was not plague but just smallpox, which our ancestors treated almost as lightly as we do. And smallpox it turned out to be. So the family came back with their bedding, and lived happily ever after; the girl recovered; and Culpeper said what he thought of his misguided fellow-practitioner. Among other things, he called him ‘a man of forlorn fortunes with sore eyes.’

Preposterous as all this was, you must remember that Culpeper justified his practice by the theory that `this creation, though composed of contraries, is one united body, of which man is the epitome, and that he, therefore, who would understand the mystery of healing must look as high as the stars.’

That was a distorted shadow of the ancient idea that the universe is one in ultimate essence—which essence is sustained and embraced and interpenetrated by a creative motion or inner heat—the pneuma of certain Greek physicians, who practised 500 years before St. Paul, preached at Athens. It was a noble belief, but it did not prevent Dr. Culpeper from using a pharmacopoeia and treatment that would have made a West African witch-doctor jealous. And when he came across anything that he did not understand, or that Aristotle had not provided for, he put it down to ‘influences’ or `emanations’—same as you do a common cold.

But if he could return to earth to-day and see how things have progressed in the mystery of healing, I fancy he would be quite at ease in your Zion. He believed in the transmutation of metals. He could be shown that in full blast at a Royal Society soirée—with emanations. He would find that the essential unity of creation is admitted as far forth as we have plumbed infinity; and that Man, Culpeper’s epitome of all, is in himself a universe of universes, each universe ordered—negatively and positively, by sympathy and antipathy—on the same lines as hold the stars in their courses.

Consequently, he would not be astonished to see men snatch out of the air an influence—an inner heat or pneuma—of which they know no more than that it visibly warms, lights, and works for them, and, invisibly, transmits their speech and vision to one side of the world on the instant that they themselves speak or look from the other. And the news that unknown influences from out of the skies lash and tear through all matter everywhere at all times would be received by him with perfect calm.

Being an astrologer, he would, of course, go to Greenwich Observatory, to learn more about those influences. There he would be given monographs on terrestrial magnetism—its daily and seasonal tides the world over, magnetic storms, sunspots, auroras, and so forth, but all discussed without any relation to the severity or incidence of prevalent epidemics and diseases. From Greenwich he would certainly push on to tell the B.B.C., who would him that there are unknown heavenly influences which prevent millions of bold youths and blushing maidens from hearing the music they would dance to—influences which at times cause the spoken word to die out under the stars as the note of a rubbed finger-bowl dies when the hand is lifted.

Presently—for he was always stronger on theory than research—he would fetch up among the laboratories, where, if he was as lucky as I was this summer, he would be shown marvellous films of infected tissue being subjected to the influence of an influence called radium. Then, I fancy, the fun would begin. Up to that point, he would find the main axiom which he had quoted three centuries before accepted, proven, and in use; the influence, the inner breath, the pneuma —not only exceeding all bounds of wonder and belief in its proper manifestations, but, under the name of electricity, piping and singing in the market-place on a commercial basis.

So, as with his smallpox case, his first question after he had seen the films would be: ‘What was the aspect of the Heavens at the time these phenomena occurred?’ He would take it for granted that, with the whole universe alight to signal some tremendous secret to mankind, men would naturally ‘look as high as the stars.’ And what answer would he get? When I asked a similar question of a man of science lately he said: ‘You’d better see a doctor.’ I told him that, with any luck, I expected to see ever so many of them before long. That expectation having been fulfilled to-night, I want to ask you some questions. Isn’t it likely that the multitude and significance of the revelations heaped upon us within the past few years have made men in self-defence specialise more and more narrowly? Haven’t we been driven headlong to abandon our conceptions of life, motion, and matter? And isn’t it human that in that upheaval men may have carried off each his own cherished prepossession and camped beside it—just as refugees do after an earthquake?

Is it then arguable that we may still mistake secondary causes for primary ones, and attribute to instant and visible agents of disease unconditioned activities which, in truth, depend on some breath drawn from the motion of the universe—of the entire universe, revolving as one body (or dynamo if you choose) through infinite but occupied space? The idea is wildly absurd? Quite true. But what does that matter if any fraction of any idea helps towards mastering even one combination in the great time-locks of Life and Death? Suppose then, at some future time when the bacteriologist and the physicist are for the moment at a standstill, wouldn’t it be interesting if they took their problem to the astronomer, and—in modern scientific language, of course—put to him Nicholas Culpeper’s curious question: ‘What was the aspect of the Heavens when such-and-such phenomena were observed?’?