06 December 2009

Jerome K. Jerome and Hypochondria in "Lapham's Quarterly"

Lapham's Quarterly has a stunning issue on medicine in history. Included in its pages is this wonderful short piece by Jerome K. Jerome from 1889:

It was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book and read all I came to read, and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves and began to study indolently diseases in general. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for a while frozen with horror, and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever—read the symptoms—discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it—wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’ Dance—found, as I expected, that I had that too—began to get interested in my case and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically—read up ague and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish—and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals” if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and after that, take their diploma.

Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it 147 to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.

I had walked into that reading room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather—all for nothing when I fancy I’m ill—so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said, “Well, what’s the matter with you?”

I said, “I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is not the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee I cannot tell you, but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I have got.”

And I told him how I came to discover it all.

Then he opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn’t expecting it—a cowardly thing to do, I call it—and immediately afterward butted me with the side of his head. After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.

I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back.

He said he didn’t keep it.

I said, “You are a chemist?”

He said, “I am a chemist. If I was a cooperative store and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.”

I read the prescription. It ran:

1 lb. beefsteak, with
1 pt. bitter beer every six hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at eleven sharp every night.
And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.

I followed the directions, with the happy result—speaking for myself—that my life was preserved, and is still going on.

Hat-tip: Tom Paine


  1. That's actually from the first page of Jerome's very funny Three Men in A Boat. The book is available on Project Gutenbert at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/308. Highly recommend the entire book, as it's every bit as good as the opening.

  2. Thanks - I suspected. My copy was at home and I didn't check before putting it up.