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Reviewed by:
  • Reflections on Medicine: Essays by Robert U. Massey, MD
  • Charles S. Bryan, M.D., Heyward Gibbes Distinguished Professor of Internal Medicine Emeritus
Martin Duke , ed. Reflections on Medicine: Essays by Robert U. Massey, MD. New York: Gordian Knot Books, 2011. xii, 193 p., $21.95.

[End Page 339] These seventy pithy essays were written by a former editor of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1987-91) and are here reviewed by someone least likely to render an unfavorable verdict for reasons that will become clear. Although I never knew Robert Unruh Massey (1922-2008), indeed had barely heard of him, this impressive volume made him a kindred spirit, a counterpart for a medical version of Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Like me he was a practicing internist-turned-academician (he made dean; I peaked at department chair), an amateur medical historian, a member of the American Osler Society, and a bow tie wearer. More to the point, he was long-time editor of a state medical journal—Connecticut Medicine: The Journal of the Connecticut State Medical Society for twelve years (1986-98); for me, The Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association for thirty-four years and counting. How did he do it, and how did we differ?

Evaluation came easily, as we shared so many subjects. We both wrote editorials, for example, on values, principles, virtue theory, oaths, the relevance of the humanities to medicine, the Golden Age of medicine, ethics, death and dying, cost containment, clinical judgment, health-care reform, professionalism, medical students, medical education, the technological imperative, medical history and biography, and Albert Schweitzer's doctrine of "reference for life." We both took titles from Lewis Thomas's "Night Thoughts while Listening to Mahler's Fifth Symphony" (his—"Night Thoughts on End-of-the-Century Medicine," mine—"Pew Thoughts While Listening to Pachelbel's Canon in D"). And he like most editors enjoyed pearls, such as "the Nothnagel Principle" ("Only a good man can be a great physician"—Hermann Nothnagel [1841-1905]) or Winston Churchill's rule 6 ("Never take yourself seriously"). My simple conclusion: Bob Massey was good. My admiration is akin to that of a fellow violinist studying the concertmaster from the front row.

Like the editor of this volume (Martin Duke) and the authors of the forward (Sherwin B. Nuland) and biographical sketch (H. David Crombie), I found myself missing Bob Massey. I miss him especially for his jeremiads on the declining role of history in the medical school curriculum. As the French medical historian Danielle Gourevitch put it at the turn of the millennium (Lancet 1999; 354: SIV 33): "Today's technical and dehumanised medicine has no past, has no cultural language, has no philosophy, does not even have any books. . . . The year 2000 will witness the triumph of medicine, but also the substitution of doctors by health technicians." Bob Massey cared: [End Page 340]

Historical memory must in some way be analogous to individual memory; as it declines, a community, institution, profession, nation, or the entire human race must suffer. . . . All the while the diffusion of historical knowledge seems to have declined. Historians write mostly for one another; that kind of exchange among scholars is essential for getting things right, but it hardly adds to the historical memory if our students never hear of it.


I miss his take on how the amateur historians who make up the bulk of the American Osler Society's membership and the professional historians in the American Association for the History of Medicine might jointly advocate for requiring at least some exposure to history in the medical school curriculum.

And I miss the opportunity to ask Bob Massey the why of editing a state medical journal. It is, to be sure, a literary outlet, even if the ultimate fate for most of our work will resemble those sad images from Gray's Elegy ("Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear"). But for me, at least, the why constitutes a crusade against declining scholarship among practicing physicians. There was a time when practicing doctors wrote to establish or enhance their reputations...


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