The good Dr. Gull -

The good Dr. Gull


I’ve been trying to put the “Edmonton bureau” into more civilized order the last few weeks. This mostly involves decreasing the total entropy of my books and restoring them to shelves and boxes, which inevitably leads to the discovery of a couple dozen books I never finished and many others I’d like to read again. This in turn, tends to delay the tidying. Among the books I’ve unearthed and re-read is From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.

Moore’s “theory” of the case is a modification of an old Ripperologist favourite: the Ripper, goes the story, was the instrument of a royal/Masonic conspiracy to eliminate a handful of Whitechapel prostitutes who had been blackmailing the Prince of Wales’ son, Albert Victor. In a postscript that is one of the most remarkable parts of a dazzling book, Moore and Campbell, giving an overview of Ripperology and the lonely kooks who have practiced it, show exactly how crazy you’d have to be to accept this. It took an inconceivable amount of research, shuffling, and fudging on Moore’s part to contort the theory into fitting the details of the case.

"Sir William Withey Gull"But it seems unfortunate that he never stops to ease his Ripper candidate—Sir William Withey Gull (1816-1890), head of Guy’s Hospital and Physician-in-Extraordinary to the Queen—totally off the hook. Gull became a subject of interest to Ripperologists because some investigators felt the murders displayed evidence of advanced surgical knowledge; doctors and butchers alike were under a cloud of suspicion in London at the time of the killings. (Modern cops, of course, are still occasionally known to attribute “surgical skill” to cattle mutilations perpetrated by coyotes.) In Moore’s hands, Gull becomes one of the great literary monsters: a talented, ultra-bourgeois physician and teacher who is assigned an unpleasant secret task and loses control, deranged by Masonic blasphemies, mild cerebral strokes, fantasies of patriarchal vengeance, and the menacing, phallus-studded mise-en-scène of East London.

For better or worse, even if they are sensible enough not to accept Moore’s fiction as truth, future generations are likely to picture a predatory misogynist when they hear the name “William Withey Gull”. This seems a shame, one doubled by Moore’s failure to provide some apology for it: the real Gull fought for women’s right to receive a medical education, and coined the term “anorexia nervosa”. Gull seems to have been a scrupulous and gentle practitioner, one who raised himself through hard work (in the classic 19th-century manner) from childhood penury to a baronetcy. He died with what some, at the time, considered the largest personal fortune ever amassed wholly through doctoring.

From our vantage point, we can hardly help regarding most Victorian doctors as anything but striving bunglers. One shudders, for instance, reading about Gull’s stubborn insistence that diabetes mellitus was certainly a disease of the liver. But Dr. Gull probably did do some genuine good. From youth onward he was notable for a combination of amiability and trustworthiness that made a powerful impression on everyone who knew him. “Not many years ago,” one friend recalled, “we heard an old student of Guy’s [Hospital] descant on his beautiful lectures, and especially those on fever. On being questioned as to what Gull said which most struck him, he said he could not remember anything in particular, but he would come to London any day to hear Gull reiterate the words in very slow measure, ‘Now typhoid, gentlemen’.”

The friend added, “When Gull left the bedside of his patient, and said in measured tones, ‘You will get well’, it was like a message from above.” This self-consciously inspiring bedside manner, far more than anything he actually prescribed, seems to have been responsible for Gull’s success in treating the future Edward VII for typhoid, which made him a permanent royal favourite. Gull was a strong advocate of the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm—and, if possible, doing absolutely nothing at all. He was controversial in the profession for “Gull’s treatment of rheumatic fever by mint water”—that is, by means of placebo. (“Being dissatisfied with the treatment of this disease by so many remedies, he wished to try the effect of abstinence from all medicines, and to satisfy the patients’ minds he ordered mint water.”) A biographer writes:

He had the greatest hatred of the charlatanism which has a remedy for every malady, and therefore was conscientiously opposed to the homoeopathic system of affirming the existence of a medicine for every symptom. He once showed the writer a note-book in which cases were recorded, and he said how strangely this would be regarded by anyone who did not unravel its meaning.

For example, “Name, Mr. _____; disease, loss of favourite dog; treatment, Isthmus of Suez.” The explanation was, that a gentleman of no occupation came to him complaining of his wretched state of health, and Gull soon found on conversation that his mind had been much worried by the loss of his favourite dog. Gull saw that he wanted some distraction, and as just at that time all the world was hastening to Suez to inaugurate the opening of the Canal, he advised his patient to go there.

In the context of his time—or, indeed, of any earlier time in the history of Western medicine—Gull’s conservative prescribing and reassuring manner represented the best possible care a patient could expect. And one can’t help thinking that today’s MS patients who are travelling to Poland or India for venography are probably giving themselves a good strong dose of Isthmus of Suez.


The good Dr. Gull

  1. Never clean out a book collection unless you're on the first day of a long vacation. LOL

    But thank you for the interesting update on Dr Gull.

  2. From Hell is the largest book, by a wide margin, that I've ever read in one fairly uninterrupted stretch immediately after purchase. If I ever have to shrink my library down to travel-size, it will have a place there despite its greedy physical dimensions. (The greedier Lost Girls won't make the cut.)

    The film is a bit unfortunate, and reminiscent of Polanski's adaptation of The Club Dumas — take a gripping, multilayered adventure story from a well-regarded book, strip out the most complex and esoteric layers, and offer a flat adventure in its place. Polanski was a bit more successful than the Hughes brothers, probably because he had the sense to change the title, he wasn't saddled with Heather Graham, and he's just a better filmmaker.

    Moore's novel Voice of the Fire is worth reading at least once; it's an interesting experiment.

    • From Hell might be Moore's best work, which is saying something. As with Philip K. Dick, though, I wish Hollywood would just leave him alone. Or someone should just make a movie ABOUT him.

      • Phooey! From Hell is an endless bore. The 2nd volume of League is Moore's best (and the third volume, which you basically have to smuggle into Canada, his absolute worst. I can`t describe how awful it is, even though it brings in Carnacki the Ghost Detective from WH Hodgeson).

        And Cosh still needs to get a haircut.

        • Me and Alan Moore both, I suppose. He'd probably be keen on your sympathetic-magic theory about photographs.

  3. Colby,
    I completely agree. Gull deserves much better much better treatment than he got from us. I did raIse these issues early on, but none of it could be made to fit into Alan's masterplan. Best to you!

    • You're much too kind. The effects on Dr. Gull's reputation may be regrettable, but no artistic license was ever better justified by a finished product.

  4. "From our vantage point, we can hardly help regarding most Victorian doctors as anything but striving bunglers."

    You say striving bunglers, I say sadistic torturers. I saw victorian doctor's instruments in a museum and it still gives me heebie – jeebies thinking about their tools of trade.

    " … are probably giving themselves a good strong dose of Isthmus of Suez."

    Maybe they are, maybe they aren't but there is only one way to find out. Fighting to live, instead of passivity, is admirable.

  5. There are several discussions here about Gull and the alleged Royal Conspiracy; this one has interesting comments from a couple of Gull's relatives:

    Also at least one about From Hell:

    I ran across the Casebook website after I had read Patricia Cornwell's book claiming to identify the Ripper. They savaged her pretty badly (in a metaphorical way).

  6. I was wondering when this (what eventually turned into a) placebo essay would get around to Zamboni. Had to wait until the last graf, did I, but disappointed was I not.

    In the good doctor's defence: If the liver was where the best available evidence of the day placed the diabetic goings-on, then the liver it should have been. Besides, the liver is not a disinterested party in the whole diabetes game, anyways. Wasn't it a decade or two later when the centre of the diabetes universe migrated over to the pancreas?

  7. So what is notable about Dr. Gull, as Mr. Cosh illuminates him in this piece?
    That his reputation has been needlessly besmerched for current day commercial interests?
    That Dr. Gull is an example of an expert physician deftly handling the emotional suffering of his charges, when so many others were completely disregarding this vital aspect of recovering from illness?
    That, like so many others, he advocated theories about the nature of illness that turned out to be wrong, and still managed to treat the ill just the same?
    That Dr. Gull's model of "Come now, man, brace up." is all that MS sufferers need to hear, especially when delivered by a physician practicing only the best bedside manner?
    That being seen to be doing something is probably more effective than actually doing something?
    How are we to map this collection of insights onto our current predicament: is liberation therapy genuine or a placebo/ponzie scheme?
    Does Mr. Cosh seek to relieve our suffering by using a similar instance from history to put our minds in order about the matter currently before us?

    • No, Mr. Cosh seeks to tell you about some interesting stuff he read. But feel free to melt down completely over one sentence tacked on as an afterthought.

      • Amusing. No, were Mr. Cosh interested in mearly letting us know about some of the many glorius books that fall off his desk like manna from heaven, surely he would have resorted to any of the more conventional forms for book reviews or comment on more than one book, at the very least. No, Mr. Cosh is clearly trying to haul some water for his current cause celeb. I would never suspect that Mr. Cosh would be so lacking in self-awareness as to not see the relevance of what he has writen in the context of what has, oh so recently, been the subject of his columns.

        But maybe he has moved on, and it is just becoming increasingly difficult to discern an editorial direction in Mr. Cosh's work. The attention span of youth these days, what, what.

        Cold as ever Standing.

        • I'm not sure how a semi-literate kook would discern an editorial direction in anything, but OK.

          • Semi-literate? I don't read books about trucking.

      • Cool, feel free to suggest good reads anytime Mr.Cosh