Thursday, May 26, 2016


The Medical Version of the Platonic Ideal

Anne de Courcy, 1939: The Last Season (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989; pbk. London: Phoenix, 1989), pp. 123-124:
No organ, however, came under closer scrutiny than the gut, regarded with particular suspicion by Sir Arbuthnot [Lane] because of the large number of bacteria found there. His view was taken to heart by the general public, largely owing to the fact that any malfunction was so readily apparent. Anyone could tell if his gut was in good working order, or not. No specialist knowledge was required, no examination by another person necessary to know if Sir Arbuthnot's one vital criterion for a healthy colon — a regular daily motion — had been met. Every true-born Briton, of whatever age, social class, sex, or metier, was able to tell almost without thinking whether he or she had had 'a movement' that morning.

Such was the power of Sir Arbuthnot's proselytizing that the alternative spelt — quite literally, for many — doom and despair. Almost every complaint that did not actually kill was laid at the door of the sluggish bowel. Constipation, ran the accepted wisdom, caused not only migraine, lethargy, indigestion, halitosis and a poor complexion, but also more esoteric conditions such as difficulty in childbirth, depression, permanent fatigue, frigidity and impotence. Liquid paraffin sold by the gallon, and no bathroom cupboard was complete without a wardrobe of laxatives, frequently compared as to taste and effectiveness. Children were sent to the lavatory after breakfast to 'go', and were asked immediately afterwards if they had 'been', a metronomic punctuality being held up as the medical version of the Platonic ideal. At some preparatory schools, boys had to put a tick or cross against their names on a notice board, and thus it followed that everyone knew the state of his neighbour's bowels — information which occasionally followed them inconveniently into later life. In the greater delicacy of girls' boarding schools, those unable to mumble or nod the required affirmative were summoned that night to matron for a spoonful of Milk of Magnesia, Syrup of Figs or, in recalcitrant cases, a foul-tasting dose of castor oil.


But this was nothing compared to the remedies advertised in the popular press. Nowhere was Sir Arbuthnot Lane's influence so apparent as in the advertisement columns. If the Fuehrer had studied these, he could have been forgiven for thinking the entire British nation was so obsessed with its bowels, let alone so incapacitated by constipation, so as to render the rumble of war a mere irrelevant twittering on the sidelines.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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