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Doctors Looking Backward

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

Hugh Young, A Surgeon’s Autobiography. By Hugh Young. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00. / Remember. By Abraham Flexner. New York: Simon and Schuster. $3.75. A Surgeon’s life. By J. M. T. Finney. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.50.

Apublic that continues to show a liking for personally conducted visits backstage in medical science and practice will enjoy recently published autobiographies by Hugh Young, Abraham Flexner and J. M. T. Finney. These books are alike in that each was written by a man born in the South, who worked at one period or another of his career at Johns Hopkins University, and who made his best contribution to his times in the field of medicine. They differ in every other respect.

Hugh Young’s book will appeal to those who like a highly spiced literary fare, to those who are not shocked by the humor of a urologist or the liberal display of technical drawings and photographs of urological procedures, and to those who are intrigued by the experiences of the bon vivant whom war permits to see more than a little of life in the raw. To such readers it will seem an interesting success story.

The author goes from triumph to triumph at dizzy speed. To have been born with the blood of two Confederate generals in his veins; to have made a record at the University of Virginia never since equaled; to have pioneered in urological surgery, inventing apparatus and initiating new techniques; to have founded a medical journal; to have secured the funds for the Brady Urological Institute and to have established and maintained it; to have directed the Urological Service of the A. E. F. and to have played the leading role in the control of venereal disease in the Expeditionary Forces; to have hobnobbed with, operated upon, and gained the confidence of so many presidents, senators, admirals, and generals; and then to have had the surplus energy necessary to lobby for important social and medical legislation, to sponsor aviation and the arts, to hunt, fish, and cruise—these successes have brought obvious and understandable satisfaction to him,

His book is descriptive and not reflective. In this sense it is perhaps an unusual book for a doctor to write. Physicians may take exception to its tone of self confidence—Pare taught them that surgeons dressed wounds while God healed them. They may squirm a bit before the parade of professional priorities. They may think with Hippocrates that there are things that have been revealed, things which physicians see and hear “in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken about.” But they will not forget that Dr. Young has played a significant part in advancing knowledge in his field of concentration, and knowing the number of successful urologists who have gone out from the Brady Institute to positions of importance all over this country and who are witness to the inspiration and training received under him, they will be glad to read his record and to learn that fortune has brought him such ample rewards,

“I Remember” is a serious presentation of what Abraham Flexner recalls of the busy life in which he, the sixth of nine children of poor but ambitious Jewish emigre parents, worked his way forward and upward to a vantage point of high altitude in a particular field. The author, now in well deserved retirement, may look back upon his career with satisfaction, for rarely has it fallen to the lot of a simple individual to influence so fundamentally the structure of American education. His pitiless exposure of the weaknesses of medical teaching in the United States prior to 1910, flabbergasting as it did deans and professors, his study of medical education abroad, and his report of it in “Bulletin Number Six,” his survey of prostitution on the continent of Europe, his wise recommendations as a member of the General Education Board which poured millions of Rockefeller money into higher education in the United States, were but steps to the realization of his magnificent final objective—the creation of a super-university, a Utopia of scholars. The revolution in medical education brought about by his report lifted medical teaching in this country from last to first place and gave us seventy good medical schools for one hundred and fifty poor ones. The enormous benefactions which he directed built colleges for teaching medicine, trained men abroad, and established full-time clinical professorships. The novel plan he developed at Princeton became the Institute for Advanced Study. All these were the product of one man’s brain using other people’s money.

Here is the story of a man who has gone through life with baffling audacity—one of those extremists who employs revolutionary rather than evolutionary methods, an opportunist in the best sense of the word, a dreamer whose practical idealism and “enthusiasm for the feasible” brought within his grasp the stars to which he hitched his aspirations. He is the best example of what he himself calls “the prepared mind.” Because of it, and impelled by high motives, he was able to ’ inaugurate successfully one great venture after another. He revered able men, won them as friends and collaborators, and made them the tools of his extraordinary accomplishments. His success was in no small measure the result of skilfully handled associations with persons of power.

“A Surgeon’s Life” is a chatty, anecdotal account of septuagenarian J. M. T. Finney, M. D. With a belief in God, hard work, and the value of friendship, Dr. Finney made his way from a motherless childhood in a poor Presbyterian parsonage, through Princeton and Harvard, to a full and happy life in the land of promise, which for him Baltimore has proved to be. He has lived in the Golden Age of surgery in America. He has worked shoulder to shoulder with some of the giants of the medical profession, and although he had a part in shedding the luster which emanated from the Hopkins of his day, he makes few claims for himself.

His book reflects a man singularly free from the self-consciousness and conceits common to most men in autobiographical mood. He appears to be so busy admiring his contemporaries and recounting their virtues—in fact, so busy with the whole buoyant business of living—that he finds little time to talk about himself. Yet behind this narrative there is a portrait of an effective and kindly personality. He considered himself called to “combat the tendency in this scientific age to place undue emphasis on the science of surgery, almost to the exclusion of the human element,” and so he preferred the warm surroundings of congenial personal relations with his patients to the cold stratosphere of unalloyed science. He warmed both hands before the flame of life, and in doing so, taught his students not only the tricks of his profession but a way of life as well.


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