December 08, 2013


But what of the surgeon, P. [Peter] Hood, and his allegedly successful method of treating scarlet fever? This disease, now rare, was at the height of its virulence when the book was published, being one of the greatest scourges of childhood at the time, killing scores of thousands of children annually in Europe and America, that was to decline in seriousness from the 1890s, even before the advent of antibiotics, probably because of a change in the virulence of the causative Streptococcal bacterium. 

Hood, like Jackson, discovered nothing new; his name did not go down in glory in medical history. He believed things that were clearly not true, for example that liver disease was the cause of “€œcrowing inspiration”€ of infants, and also that his method of treating scarlet fever, namely making the child vomit, purging him with aperients, and giving him quinine, was effective. He covered their abdomens with oiled silk, which he thought preferable to the red flannel that some doctors preferred and applied so tightly that it hurried children into the next world. 

What is the point of reading such outmoded stuff about a disease that threatens us no longer by an author who advanced knowledge not at all? I think there are two reasons. 

The first is to realize that though Messrs. Hood and Jackson discovered nothing new, they were just as intelligent as us and at least as principled. We also, the vast majority of us, will make little contribution to the advancement of the world; perhaps reading of these two men will render us a little more modest, a little less self-important, than we are naturally inclined to be. 

More importantly, it will teach us that history should not be read as the backward projection of our current discontents, or of our grievances, that we are not just the victims of history but its principal beneficiaries so far. We have much to be grateful for because people like Messrs. Hood and Jackson labored for a better world, and others, more gifted or brilliant perhaps than them, or with better opportunities, succeeded in freeing us from the conditions that they described. If history is not merely the history of progress, neither is it the history merely of injustice reaching into the present. It should not be taught as it all too often is, as one of the subjects covered in the largest of all university departments, that of Resentment Studies.

Byways are to me as important as highways.



Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!