Cover image for Mark Twain and medicine : "any mummery will cure"
Mark Twain and medicine : "any mummery will cure"
Ober, K. Patrick.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Columbia : University of Missouri Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xix, 362 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
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PS1342.M43 O24 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Mark Twain has always been America's spokesman, and his comments on a wide range of topics continue to be accurate, valid, and frequently amusing. His opinions on the medical field are no exception. While Twain's works, including his popular novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, are rich in medical imagery and medical themes derived from his personal experiences, his interactions with the medical profession and his comments about health, illness, and physicians have largely been overlooked.

In Mark Twain and Medicine , K. Patrick Ober remedies this omission. The nineteenth century was a critical time in the development of American medicine, with much competition among the different systems of health care, both traditional and alternative. Not surprisingly, Mark Twain was right in the middle of it all. He experimented with many of the alternative care systems that were available in his day--in part because of his frustration with traditional medicine and in part because he hoped to find the "perfect" system that would bring health to his family.

Twain's commentary provides a unique perspective on American medicine and the revolution in medical systems that he experienced firsthand. Ober explores Twain's personal perspective in this area, as he expressed it in fiction, speeches, and letters. As a medical educator, Ober explains in sufficient detail and with clarity all medical and scientific terms, making this volume accessible to the general reader.

Ober demonstrates that many of Twain's observations are still relevant to today's health care issues, including the use of alternative or complementary medicine in dealing with illness, the utility of placebo therapies, and the role of hope in the healing process.

Twain's evaluation of the medical practices of his era provides a fresh, humanistic, and personalized view of the dramatic changes that occurred in medicine through the nineteenth century and into the first decade of the twentieth. Twain scholars, general readers, and medical professionals will all find this unique look at his work appealing.

Author Notes

K. Patrick Ober is Professor of Internal Medicine and Associate Dean for Education at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Ober (internal medicine, Wake Forest Univ. Sch. of Medicine) has written an extensive account of an unexpected but fascinating subject. Twain's writing is rich in medical references and metaphors; diseases and attempted cures were a major element in the lives of Samuel Clemens and his family. Chapters cover such topics as scarlet fever, cholera, patent medicines, electrotherapy, homeopathy or osteopathy, and hydropathy or water cure, one of Clemens's favorite therapies. In fact, Clemens was attracted to all sorts of alternative medical sects, a reflection of how ineffective the "allopathic" medicine of his day could be. Ober examines these issues and Twain's insights into the desperation of suffering people, the placebo effect, and the positive power of laughter. Not long before his death, Twain was given an honorary medical degree, a fitting tribute to the man and the writer whose observations about medicine still speak to us over 100 years later. Though academic, this well-written book is recommended for university and large public libraries.-A.J. Wright, Univ. of Alabama Lib., Birmingham (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A practicing physician, Ober (Wake Forest Univ. School of Medicine and a "Huck Finn addict") discloses layers of meaning in works as disparate as Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He considers Twain as a person and a writer in the context of 19th-century medicine, which, he says, "was not meaningfully different from the medicine of the preceding two thousand years." Beset by loss, family illnesses, and his own health problems, Twain had a lifelong preoccupation with illness and recovery and eventually came to believe strongly in what is now called the "placebo principle." Although Ober provides interesting new accounts of Twain's experiences of medicine and the ways that those experiences found their way into his fiction and nonfiction writings, he is less successful in relating Twain's insights to the present. Many thoughtful writers, among them physicians of every stripe, have written about the interplay of mind and body, even body and soul, in the practice of medicine, and Ober could have made use of (or at least cited in his bibliography) the work of Sherwin Nuland, Jerome Groopman, Andrew Weil, and Atul Gawande (physicians all), among many who have explored the subject. ^BSumming Up: Optional. Extensive collections supporting work on Twain or literature and medicine. R. Nadelhaft emerita, University of Maine

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Abbreviated Titles for Frequently Cited Worksp. xv
Introductionp. 1
Section I. Life Is Short ...
1. A Sickly, Precarious, Tiresome, and Uncertain Childp. 23
2. Allopathic Medicine: Taking Heroic Measuresp. 30
3. Scarlet Fever Will Be True to Youp. 35
4. The Cholera Days of '49p. 45
5. Fire in a Liquid Formp. 55
6. Patent Medicine: The Great American Fraudp. 61
7. The Autopsy: "Dissection by the Doctors!"p. 74
8. The Great Dr. Joseph McDowellp. 81
Section II. I Don't Like Medicines
9. Hydropathic Medicine: The Flush Timesp. 97
10. Neurasthenia: The American Diseasep. 119
11. Dr. Newton, the Quackp. 129
12. Electrotherapy: Taking Charge with the Current Fadp. 135
13. The Rest Curep. 147
14. Osteopathy: The Medicine of Manipulationp. 153
Section III. Any Mummery Will Cure
15. The Plasmon Curep. 169
16. Lies That Help and Lies That Hurtp. 173
17. Homeopathic Medicine: Dilutions of Grandeurp. 183
18. Placebo Effect: Curing Warts with Spunk-Waterp. 196
19. Anything ... Except Christian Sciencep. 207
20. Faith: Believing What You Know Ain't Sop. 223
21. Any Mummery Will Cure, if the Patient's Faith Is Strong in Itp. 231
22. Old Age and Broken Healthp. 244
Afterword: Hell Is of No Consequence to a Person Who Doesn't Live Therep. 255
Appendix 1. A Brief Family Medical Historyp. 279
Appendix 2. The Legacy of Neurastheniap. 283
Appendix 3. One of the Choicest Human Beings in the Worldp. 295
Notesp. 299
Referencesp. 331
Indexp. 353