Men I Have Painted/Dr. Weir Mitchell
DR. WEIR MITCHELL
THE city of Philadelphia was at one time renowned for its School of Medicine. Students flocked there from all parts of America to attend the clinics of surgeons like Dr. Agnew and Dr. Gross. And these two distinguished anatomists found their Rembrandt in a contemporary artist, Thomas Eakins, whose masterly delineation of their clinics compares favourably with that of the famous Lessons in Anatomy, in Amsterdam.
It was to be expected that a man of Weir Mitchell's imaginative and poetic temperament would select that branch of medical science which gives greater play to the metaphysical faculties than the more exact practice of surgery. His early student days coincided with the first investigations by the new school of neurologists into temperament; and psychology, as a new word to describe an old but until then little-considered thing, was bandied about in hospital and theatre, in ballroom and sickroom. The treatment of the alimentary canal gave place to the study of the spinal cord. Neurosis and neurasthenia explained all the disorders of the dyspeptic.
Dr. Mitchell was by inclination a naturalist: whether through premeditation or predestination, knowingly or ignorantly, he took Aristotle for his guide. The aristocratic principle, that supports all the arguments of the Greek philosopher, was readily accepted and adapted to the life and the researches of the young neurologist. He quickly diagnosed the state of society, and the habits of the animals suggested a cure that could be applied to each individual. Men and women have been overcome by two gnawing human desires which feverishly they sought to gratify—love of money and love of pleasure. The mental excitement and fatigue attendant upon such questionable pursuits enfeebled the body and wrecked the nerves.
As a keen student of morals, the young doctor quickly perceived that theologians, on the one hand, had ever conspired to divide immortal man from the "beasts that perish," and, on the other, social reformers ignored the teachings of nature in constructing their artificial codes of social ethics. In both systems man is treated either as a spiritual or a mental entity, entirely regardless of his physical nature.
The young scientist hit upon the plan of treating the animal part of man as the animal treated itself. Having discovered that for the greater part of the day all animate nature is in repose, he instituted among his patients a system whereby continuous rest became obligatory. To exhausted men he said, "If you wish to live, go kill something"; to women with shattered nerves, "You must hibernate." The pursuit of game became a tonic for men; long hours of sleep soothed ambitious and aspiring women, and restored their balance.
The proof of the accuracy of his diagnosis lay in the success of the treatment prescribed. As a naturalist and pathologist his fame was secure.
He next turned his attention to the study of the venom of reptiles, and, in collaboration with Dr. John Madison Taylor, published the results of his investigations into the effects of their bites.
His artistic temperament found expression in poetic and prose writings, whose interest and merit may in time surpass, in men's memories, his achievements in science. Sentiment often lives longer than empiricism.