Chaucer’s Doctor of Physic
“He was a verray parfit praktisour,” says the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. It means that this doctor is fluent with horoscopes and has a remunerative deal with his cronies, the apothecaries, for prescribing expensive drugs. “For gold in phisick is a cordial, / Therefore he loved gold in special.”
The title of Molière’s comedy – Le Médecin malgré lui – says it all. Sganarelle, a woodcutter, becomes a successful medical practitioner “despite himself”. He manages just enough cod-Latin to convince patients, and feeds their hopes. When someone points out that he has confused the heart and the liver, he replies, “nous avons changé tout cela“: we have changed all that.
The doctor in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife is a standard character of Restoration Comedy: a society physician who exists to fleece the rich. He is in cahoots with the libinous Horner, certifying him (falsely) as impotent, and helps to spread the news around town so men will allow their wives to consort with Horner. “A quack is as fit for a pimp, as a midwife for a bawd.”
In Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy calls in renowned “man-midwife” Dr Slop to preside over Tristram’s birth. Mrs Shandy would have been happy with the lady in the village who usually does the business. Slop spends much of the novel trying to untie his obstetric bag, and when he succeeds, uses one of his new-fangled instruments to crush the baby’s nose.
Emma Bovary’s dull husband is an incompetent doctor. In one of the most painful episodes in Flaubert’s novel, Homais, the creepy local chemist, encourages Bovary to attempt a revolutionary new surgical procedure to cure the clubfoot of a servant. The operation is a disaster, leading to the man having his whole leg amputated.
In HG Wells’s “scientific romance”, traveller Edward Prendrick is rescued by a fellow Englishman and taken to a mysterious island presided over by the chilly Doctor Moreau. Prendrick recalls that Moreau was a London physiologist who aroused fury over animal experiments. On the island he is labouring to turn animals into humanoids. He is killed by a captive puma. Hooray!
Ian Fleming’s Chinese-German villain is a tough nut. After having his hands cut off by a gang, he survives with artificial hands, and develops a penchant for human experiments that test the ability to withstand pain. James Bond is the perfect subject, and gets a lot of electric shocks and poison spiders before he buries the Doctor in bird poo.
Dr Tod T Friendly
The first-time reader might be puzzled to find out on the first page of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow that doctors are to be thought of as fearful personages. But as we work backwards through Tod’s life, beginning in reverse with all his labours in American hospitals, we begin to sense why. Once he was . . . a Nazi doctor in a world in which doctors were the worst of murderers.
Dr Lecter is a notable psychiatrist, which gives him access to the fears and weaknesses of those he meets. He is renowned for his skill at dissections, and later, this is put to new uses.
A disputable one, this. Is the GP narrator of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger good or bad? Are his electro-cures and his readiness with prescriptions evidence of good patient care? Is his refusal to believe in ghosts a sign of level-headedness? Can you trust him or not?