Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 08

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Misinforming a Nation by Willard Huntington Wright
Chapter VIII: Science



In the field of medicine and biology the Encyclopædia Britannica reveals so narrow and obvious a partisanship that there has already been no little resentment on the part of American scientists. This country is surpassed by none in biological chemistry; and our fame in surgery and medical experimentation is world-wide. Among the ranks of our scientists stand men of such great importance and high achievement that no adequate history of biology or medicine could be written without giving vital consideration to them. Yet the Britannica fails almost completely in revealing their significance. Many of our great experimenters — men who have made important original contributions to science and who have pushed forward the boundaries of human knowledge — receive no mention whatever; and many of our surgeons and physicians whose researches have marked epochs in the history of medicine meet with a similar fate. On the other hand you will find scores of biographies of comparatively little known and unimportant English scientists, some of whom have contributed nothing to medical and biological advancement.

It is not my intention to go into any great detail in this matter. I shall not attempt to make a complete list of the glaring omissions of our scientists or to set down anywhere near all of the lesser British scientists who are discussed liberally and con amore in the Britannica. Such a record were unnecessary. But I shall indicate a sufficient number of discrepancies between the treatment of American scientists and the treatment of English scientists, to reveal the utter inadequacy of the Britannica as a guide to the history and development of our science. If America did not stand so high in this field the Encyclopædia's editors would have some basis on which to explain away their wanton discrimination against our scientific activities. But when, as I say, America stands foremost among the nations of the world in biological chemistry and also holds high rank in surgery and medicine, there can be no excuse for such wilful neglect, especially as minor British scientists are accorded liberal space and generous consideration.

First we shall set down those three earlier pathfinders in American medicine whose names do not so much as appear in the Britannica's Index: — John Morgan, who in 1765, published his Discourse Upon the Institution of Medical Schools in America, thus becoming the father of medical education in the United States; William Shippen, Jr., who aided John Morgan in founding our first medical school, the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, and gave the first public lectures in obstetrics in this country, and who may be regarded as the father of American obstetrics; and Thomas Cadwalader, the first Philadelphian (at this time Philadelphia was the medical center of America) to teach anatomy by dissections, and the author of one of the best pamphlets on lead poisoning.

Among the somewhat later important American medical scientists who are denied any mention in the Britannica are: John Conrad Otto, the first who described hemophilia (an abnormal tendency to bleeding); James Jackson, author of one of the first accounts of alcoholic neuritis; James Jackson, Jr., who left his mark in physical diagnosis; Elisha North, who as early as 1811 advocated the use of the clinical thermometer in his original description of cerebrospinal meningitis (the first book on the subject); John Ware, who wrote one of the chief accounts of delirium tremens; Jacob Bigelow, one of the very great names in American medicine, whose essay, On Self-Limited Diseases, according to Holmes, “did more than any other work or essay in our language to rescue the practice of medicine from the slavery to the drugging system which was a part of the inheritance of the profession”; W. W. Gerhard, who distinguished between typhoid and typhus; Daniel Drake, known as the greatest physician of the West, who as the result of thirty years of labor wrote the masterpiece, Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America; Caspar Wistar, who wrote the first American treatise on anatomy; and William Edmonds Horner, who discovered the tensor tarsi muscle, known as Homer's muscle. . . . Not only are these men not accorded biographies in the “universal” and “complete” Encyclopædia Britannica, but their names do not appear!

The father of American surgery was Philip Syng Physick, who invented the tonsillotome and introduced various surgical operations; but you must look elsewhere than in the Britannica for so much as a mention of him. And although the history of American surgery is especially glorious and includes such great names as: the Warrens; Wright Post; J. C. Nott, who excised the coccyx and was the first who suggested the mosquito theory of yellow fever; Henry J. Bigelow, the first to describe the Y-ligament; Samuel David Gross, one of the chief surgeons of the nineteenth century; Nicholas Senn, one of the masters of modern surgery; Harvey Gushing, perhaps the greatest brain surgeon in the world to-day; George Crile, whose revolutionary work in surgical shock was made long before the Britannica went to press; and William S. Halsted, among the greatest surgeons of the world, — as I have said, although America has produced these important men, the Encyclopædia Britannica ignores the fact entirely, and does not so much as record one of their names!

Were all the rest of American medical scientists given liberal consideration in the Britannica, it would not compensate for the above omissions. But these omissions are by no means all: they are merely the beginning. The chief names in modern operative gynecology are American. But of the nine men who are the leaders in this field, only one (Emmet) has a biography, and only one (McDowell) receives casual mention. Marion Sims who invented his speculum and introduced the operation for vesicovaginal fistula, Nathan Bozeman, J. C. Nott (previously mentioned), Theodore Gaillard Thomas, Robert Battey, E. C. Dudley, and Howard A. Kelly do not exist for the Britannica.

Furthermore, of the four chief pioneers in anæsthesia — the practical discovery and use of which was an American achievement only two are mentioned. The other two — C. W. Long, of Georgia, and the chemist, Charles T. Jackson — are apparently unknown to the British editors of this encyclopædia. And although in the history of pædiatrics there is no more memorable name than that of Joseph O'Dwyer, of Ohio, whose work in intubation has saved countless numbers of infants, you will fail to find any reference to him in this “unbiased” English reference work.

One must not imagine that even here ends the Britannica's almost unbelievable injustice to American scientists. John J. Abel is not mentioned either, yet Professor Abel is among the greatest pharmacologists of the world. His researches in animal tissues and fluids have definitely set forward the science of medicine; and it was Abel who, besides his great work with the artificial kidney, first discovered the uses of epinephrin. R. G. Harrison, one of the greatest biologists of history, whose researches in the growth of tissue were epoch-making, and on whose investigations other scientists also have made international reputations, is omitted entirely from the Britannica. S. J. Meltzer, the physiologist, who has been the head of the department of physiology and pharmacology at Rockefeller Institute since 1906, is not in the Britannica. T. H. Morgan, the zoölogist, whose many books on the subject have long been standard works, is without a biography. E. B. Wilson, one of the great pathfinders in zoölogy and a man who stands in the front rank of that science, is also without a biography. And Abraham Jacobi, who is the father of pædiatrics in America, is not mentioned.

The list of wanton omissions is not yet complete! C. S. Minot, the great American embryologist, is ignored. Theobald Smith, the pathologist, is also thought unworthy of note. And among those renowned American scientists who, though mentioned, failed to impress the Encyclopædia's English editor sufficiently to be given biographies are: John Kerasley Mitchell, who was the first to describe certain neurological conditions, and was one of the advocates of the germ theory of disease before bacteriology; William Beaumont, the first to study digestion in situ; Jacques Loeb, whose works on heliotropism, morphology, psychology, etc., have placed him among the world's foremost imaginative researchers; H. S. Jennings, another great American biologist; W. H. Welch, one of the greatest of modern pathologists and bacteriologists; and Simon Flexner, whose work is too well known to the world to need any description here. These men unquestionably deserve biographies in any encyclopædia which makes even a slight pretence of completeness, and to have omitted them from the Britannica was an indefensible oversight or worse.

The editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica cannot explain away these amazing omissions on the ground that the men mentioned are not of sufficient importance to have come within the range of their consideration; for, when we look down the list of British medical scientists who are given biographies, we can find at least a score of far less important ones. For instance, Elizabeth G. Anderson, whose claim to glory lies in her advocacy of admitting women into the medical profession, is given considerably over half a column. Gilbert Blane, the introducer of lime-juice into the English navy, also has a biography. So has Richard Brocklesby, an eighteenth-century army physician; and Andrew Clark, a fashionable London practitioner; and T. B. Curling; and John Elliotson, the English mesmerist; and Joseph Fayrer, known chiefly for his studies in the poisonous snakes of India; and J. C. Forster; and James Clark, an army surgeon and physician in ordinary to Queen Victoria; and P. G. Hewett, another surgeon to Queen Victoria; and many others of no more prominence or importance.

In order to realize the astounding lengths of injustice to which the Britannica has gone in its petty neglect of America, compare these English names which are given detailed biographical consideration, with the American names which are left out. The editors of this encyclopædia must either plead guilty to the most flagrant kind of prejudicial discrimination against this country, or else confess to an abysmal ignorance of the history and achievements of modern science.

It might be well to note here that Luther Burbank's name is mentioned only once in the Britannica, under Santa Rosa, the comment being that Santa Rosa was his home. Not to have given Burbank a biography containing an account of his important work is nothing short of preposterous. Is it possible that Americans are not supposed to be interested in this great scientist? And are we to assume that Marianne North, the English naturalist and flower painter — who is given a detailed biography — is of more importance than Burbank? The list of English naturalists and botanists who receive biographies in the Britannica includes such names as William Aiton, Charles Alston, James Anderson, W. J. Broderip, and Robert Fortune; and yet there is no biography or even discussion of Luther Burbank, the American!

Thus far in this chapter I have called attention only to the neglect of American scientists. It must not be implied, however, that America alone suffers from the Britannica's insular prejudice. No nation, save England, is treated with that justice and comprehensiveness upon which the Encyclopædia's advertising has so constantly insisted. For instance, although Jonathan Hutchinson, the English authority on syphilis, receives (and rightly so) nearly half a column biography, Ehrlich, the world's truly great figure in that field, is not considered of sufficient importance to be given biographical mention. It is true that Ehrlich's salvarsan did not become known until 1910, but he had done much immortal work before then. Even Metchnikoff, surely one of the world's greatest modern scientists, has no biography! And although British biologists of even minor importance receive biographical consideration, Lyonet, the Hollander, who did the first structural work after Swammerdam, is without a biography.

Nor are there biographies of Franz Leydig, through whose extensive investigations all structural studies upon insects assumed a new aspect; Rudolph Leuckart, another conspicuous figure in zoölogical progress; Meckel, who stands at the beginning of the school of comparative anatomy in Germany; Rathke, who made a significant advance in comparative anatomy; Ramón y Cajal, whose histological research is of world-wide renown; Kowalevsky, whose work in embryology had enormous influence on all subsequent investigations; Wilhelm His, whose embryological investigations, especially in the development of the nervous system and the origin of nerve fibres, are of very marked importance; Dujardin, the discoverer of sarcode; Lacaze-Duthiers, one of France's foremost zoölogical researchers; and Pouchet, who created a sensation with his experimentations in spontaneous generation.

Even suppose the Britannica's editor should argue that the foregoing biologists are not of the very highest significance and therefore are not deserving of separate biographies, how then can he explain the fact that such British biologists as Alfred Newton, William Yarrell, John G. Wood, G. J. Allman, F. T. Buckland, and T. S. Cobbold, are given individual biographies with a detailed discussion of their work? What becomes of that universality of outlook on which he so prides himself? Or does he consider Great Britain as the universe?

As I have said, the foregoing notes do not aim at being exhaustive. To set down, even from an American point of view, a complete record of the inadequacies which are to be found in the Britannica's account of modern science would require much more space than I can devote to it here. I have tried merely to indicate, by a few names and a few comparisons, the insular nature of this Encyclopædia's expositions, and thereby to call attention to the very obvious fact that the Britannica is not “an international dictionary of biography,” but a prejudiced work in which English endeavor, through undue emphasis and exaggeration, is given the first consideration. Should this Encyclopædia be depended upon for information, one would get but the meagrest idea of the splendid advances which America has made in modern science. And, although I have here touched only on medicine and biology, the same narrow and provincial British viewpoint can be found in the Britannica's treatment of the other sciences as well.