“First do no harm”: Poetry & Medicine

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I observed in last week’s National Poetry Month post, both poetry and science provide us with new ways to see the world we live in. This week, I want to get more specific and consider one STEM field with a significant relationship to poetry: medicine.

Poets Imagining Doctors

There is a long history of poetry representing doctors and medicine. Robert Southey’s “The Surgeon’s Warning” (1796) provides one Gothic and rather gruesome vision of doctors (thanks to Laura Kremmel for the recommendation!). In it, a doctor on his deathbed worries about how his corpse will be treated:

All kinds of carcasses I have cut up,
        And the judgment now must be–
    But brothers I took care of you,
        So pray take care of me!

    I have made candles of infants fat
        The Sextons have been my slaves,
    I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
        Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

    And my Prentices now will surely come
        And carve me bone from bone,
    And I who have rifled the dead man’s grave
        Shall never have rest in my own.

This is an image of the doctor as monster, as one who perhaps deserves to receive the treatment he’s given others’ corpses (ultimately, “they carv’d him bone from bone”), and it reflects 18th century fears of doctors and surgeons themselves as well as those who worked alongside them (graverobbers, for instance).