A Book of Words – XXIII

“Surgeons and the Soul”

by Rudyard Kipling

IN the memorable Hunterian oration to which we have listened this afternoon, Sir John Bland-Sutton touched on that noble verse in Ecclesiasticus: “Honour the Physician with the honour which is due to him for the uses which ye may have of him”. There is an alternative reading, which runs, “Honour a Physician before thou hast need of him”. It is also seemly to honour him after that event. And I have—not another justification, but an excuse, for speaking in such an assembly as this. I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, ergotise, narcotise, and paralyse, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain, very much as madder mixed with a stag’s food at the Zoo colours the growth of the animal’s antlers. Moreover, in the case of the human animal, that acquired tint, or taint, is transmissible. May I give you an instance? There is a legend which has been transmitted to us from the remotest ages. It has entered into many brains and coloured not a few creeds. It is this: Once upon a time, or rather, at the very birth of Time, when the Gods were so new that they had no names, and Man was still damp from the clay of the pit whence he had been digged, Man claimed that he, too, was in some sort a deity. The Gods were as just in those days as they are now. They weighed his evidence and decided that Man’s claim was good—that he was, in effect, a divinity, and, as such, entitled to be freed from the trammels of mere brute instinct, and to enjoy the consequence of his own acts. But the Gods sell everything at a price. Having conceded Man’s claim, the legend goes that they came by stealth and stole away this godhead, with intent to hide it where Man should never find it again. But that was none so easy. If they hid it anywhere on Earth, the Gods foresaw that Man, the inveterate hunter—the father, you might say, of all hunters—would leave no stone unturned nor wave unplumbed till he had recovered it. If they concealed it among themselves, they feared that Man might in the end batter his way up even to the skies. And, while they were all thus at a stand, the wisest of the Gods, who afterwards became the God Brahm, said, “I know. Give it to me!” And he closed his hand upon the tiny unstable light of Man’s stolen godhead, and when that great Hand opened again, the light was gone. “All is well,” said Brahm. “I have hidden it where Man will never dream of looking for it. I have hidden it inside Man himself.” “Yes, but whereabouts inside Man have you hidden it?” all the other Gods asked. “Ah,” said Brahm, “that is my secret, and always will be; unless and until Man discovers it for himself.”Thus, then, gentlemen, does the case stand with Man up to the present. Consider, for a moment, the pathos of the poor brute’s position! You all know the common formula for him. “Born of Woman, on Woman designed to beget his like—the natural quarry of the Seven Deadly Sins, but the Altar of an inextinguishable Hope”. Or, more scientifically (I regret I am not a scientific person), he might be defined as “An imperfectly denatured animal intermittently subject to the unpredictable reactions of an unlocated spiritual area.”

And it is just this search for this unlocated spiritual area, whether it be a growth or a survival, which has preoccupied Man from that day to this. The Priest and the Lawgiver have probed and fished for it all through the ages; but, more than any other, through all the ages, the Leech, the Medicine-Man, the Healer, has been hottest on its track. He has searched wherever he dared—openly or furtively—in safety or at the risk of his life. In the early days the Astrologer-Physician, as he called himself, dreamed that the secret of Man’s eternal unrest was laid up in the sun, moon, and stars; and consequently, since all created things were one in essence, that an universal medicament for Man’s eternal woes could be discovered upon earth. So he searched the earth and the heavens for those twin secrets, and sacrificed himself in the search as a matter of course. Later, when the embargoes on the healing art were lifted,—when, at last, he was permitted to look openly into the bodies of mankind—the nature of his dreams changed for a while. He had found more wonders beneath his knife than earth or the planets had theretofore shown him. And that was barely ten generations ago! Once again, the Surgeon, as he had become, renewed his search, and once again sacrificed himself in the search as his passion drove him. There is no anaesthesia so complete as man’s absorption in his own job.

In the teeth of the outrageous, the absurd disabilities imposed on him, Man—the imperfectly denatured animal, who cannot trust the evidence of his own senses in the simplest matter of fact; whose evidence on the simplest matter is coloured by his own iniquities—Man, always the hunter, went up against the darkness that cloaked him and every act of his being, to find out what order of created being he might be. He called it scientific research. It was the old quest under a new name. But, this time, the seekers who headed it, unlike the Priest and the Lawyer, admitted that they knew very little. Experience had taught them to be humble. For that reason their knowledge was increased. They moved forward into areas of the body, which, till then, had denied themselves to man’s hand. They were turned back, without explanation, from other areas which, as yet, would tolerate no spying. They were bewildered by mysteries which some new marriage of observation upon accident, some predestined slip of the knife resolved into mysteries profounder still! Is it any wonder that the old dreams came back? The dream of the essential unity of all created things—the dream that some day that which men called Life might be led into matter which men called dead—the boldest dream of all, that eventually Man might surprise the ultimate secret of his being where Brahm had hidden it, in the body of Man. And, meanwhile, their days were filled, as yours are filled, with the piteous procession of men and women begging them, as men and women beg of you daily, for leave to be allowed to live a little longer, upon whatever terms.

Is it any wonder, gentlemen of the College of Surgeons, that your calling should exact the utmost that man can give—full knowledge, exquisite judgement, and skill in the highest, to be put forth, not at any self-chosen moment, but daily at the need of others? More than this. Your dread art demands that instant, impersonal vision which in one breath, one beat of the pulse, can automatically dismiss every preconceived idea and impression, and as automatically recognise, accept, and overcome whatever of new and unsuspected menace may have slid into the light beneath your steadfast hands.

But such virtue is not reached or maintained except by a life’s labour, a life’s single-minded devotion. Its reward is not only the knowledge of mastery and the gratitude of the layman, which may or may not bring content. Its true reward is the dearly prized, because unpurchasable, acknowledgement of one’s fellow-craftsmen.

I have the honour to-night of speaking before you, who are Masters in your craft. I do not give you the name of the least in your long line of seekers who follow the quest Brahm set them, when I ask you to drink the health of Sir John Bland-Sutton, a Master among Masters.