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  • Mark Twain and Medicine: "Any Mummery Will Cure"
  • Justin Kaplan
K. Patrick Ober . Mark Twain and Medicine: "Any Mummery Will Cure."Mark Twain and His Circle Series. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. xix + 362 pp. Ill. $47.50 (0-8262-1502-5).

Mark Twain's survival to the age of seventy-five was a triumph of man over medicine. From boyhood on he was the targeted beneficiary of practically every brand of doctoring and pseudo-doctoring his century had to offer. Practitioners of allopathic medicine subjected boys like Sam Clemens to purging, blistering, bloodletting, and other torments. Much later, and by then famous as Mark Twain, Sam went on to submit to homeopathic medicine, the water cure, "starvation therapy," electrotherapy, osteopathy, and Christian Science "absent treatment" (for a compound fracture, as he joked, that made him look like a hat rack). His mother, also a lifelong seeker for the ultimate nostrum, swore by Perry Davis's Pain Killer, a ferocious compound of alcohol and cayenne pepper that, taken internally, roasted the patient's innards; it was supposed to ward off cholera and alleviate chills, cramps, and colic. Although incurably derisive about patent medicines, Mark Twain, nearing sixty, planned to market an invention of his own, labeled "Clark's Swift Death to Chilblains" and consisting of kerosene mixed with [End Page 902] cheap perfume to disguise the smell. He also made a characteristically disastrous investment in another preparation supposedly endowed with universal virtues: Plasmon (also known as "Vienna Albumen"), an all-purpose nutrient made from powdered skim milk.

An internist on the faculty of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, K. Patrick Ober has written a book with a double nature: Mark Twain and Medicine is a colorful, entertaining survey of nineteenth-century quackeries and orthodoxies; it is also an informal medical biography of Mark Twain, a one-man textbook of ailments. Dr. Ober details his subject's bouts with childhood diseases, gout, "tobacco heart," severe angina, and miscellaneous miseries, all part of a "lengthening list of medical disappointments" (p. 146). "Nothing agrees with me," Mark Twain complained at seventy; "If I drink coffee it gives me dyspepsia; if I drink wine it gives me the gout; if I go to church it gives me dysentery" (p. 141).

Mark Twain was not a hypochondriac. Aside from his own genuine ailments, he had grown up in a climate of illness, disease, pathology, and violent death. As a boy he once stumbled over the corpse of a murdered man; he apparently witnessed through a keyhole his father's autopsy; and for a week he sat by the bed of his brother Henry, fatally scalded in a steamboat explosion. Like other towns in the Mississippi River Valley, Hannibal, Missouri, where he spent his early years, had a frightful rate of infant mortality and was periodically ravaged by epidemics of scarlet fever, cholera, and malaria. Ober supplies a fascinating account of the local medical celebrity, Dr. Joseph McDowell. Eccentric to the point of insanity, McDowell owned a cave (commemorated in Tom Sawyer) where he kept the cadaver of a young girl in a vat of alcohol.

Mark Twain's wife was a severe "neurasthenic," according to the fashionable diagnosis of the time. She survived typhoid fever, suffered from hysterical paralysis (treated by a faith healer), and lingeringly died of chronic congestive heart failure. Of their four children, a son, Langdon, sickly and born prematurely, died at seven months; daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis; daughter Jean suffered from epileptic seizures; and daughter Clara "developed emotional problems after her mother's death and spent the better part of the next year in a sanatorium" (p. 282).

Student, victim, and scourge of nineteenth-century therapies and cures, late in life Mark Twain gleefully accepted the honorary degree of doctor from the New York Postgraduate Medicine School. When he began his healing practice, he reported to the faculty, there had been "lots and lots of sick people" in his community; "There aren't any now" (p. 2).

Justin Kaplan
Cambridge, Massachusetts