Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities


The selection of quotations undoubtedly reflects the collectors’ biases.

Please send your favorite quotation to [email protected] for possible inclusion in this collection.


  • Splendidly organized, these [medical] conferences offered sporting, social, and scientific enjoyments to members and their families, reduced terms to all but the best hotels, free trips to any ruined abbey in the neighborhood, a memento art brochure, souvenir diaries from the leading surgical appliance makers and drug houses, and pump room facilities at the nearest spa. The previous year, at the end of the week’s festivities, generous free sample of boxes of biscuits had been sent to each doctor and his wife (A. J. Cronin, The Citadel, 1937).
  • I was not a good doctor, my studies had been too rapid, my hospital training too short, but there is not the slightest doubt that I was a successful doctor. What is the secret of success? To inspire confidence. What is confidence? … I do not know, I only know that it cannot be acquired by book reading, nor by the bedside of our patients. It is a magic gift granted by birth-right to one man and denied to another. The doctor who possesses this gift can almost raise the dead (Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele).
  • Every man who rises above the common level has received two educations: the first from his teachers; the second, more personal and important, from himself (Edward Gibbon).
  • I am sure you are all here because you hope to learn something from the array of expert speakers . . . . There are risks, however, in hearing too many opinions. If the experts disagree, you risk going away more confused than before you arrived. If, however, the experts largely agree on most aspects, you will not go away confused, but there will be a real risk that the experts are wrong (From a seminar on money management!).
  • Sir Charles Wilson, later to become Lord Moran and president of the Royal College of Physicians as well as Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime physician, when selecting of medical students at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London reportedly said that since one cannot tell how they are going to turn out one might as well have a good football team (Unknown).
  • The wisdoms of today become the follies of tomorrow. Today’s dogma will be tomorrow’s error (Franz Volhard, cit. in Am J Kidney Dis 29:777).
  • Read much but not many books (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Genius without education is like silver in the mine (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Only the educated are free (Epitectus).
  • There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are (Somerset Maugham).
  • Every Chief of Service should have a pet dog, like Ulysses had. When he retires he should leave his dog on the floor of the department he served, because when he returns the only one who will recognize him will be his dog (Bela Schick).
  • Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament is in discourse, and for ability is in judgment and disposition of business…. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules is the humor of the scholar…. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly and with great diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others… (Francis Bacon).
  •  More people study the disease than have it (Unknown).


  • The government is very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman who just puts down what he damn pleases (Sir Josiah Stamp, Inland Revenue Department, England).
  • Doctors treat patients, not statistical averages. A patient needs a doctor, not a committee (John P. Peters, cit. in Am J Kidney Dis 37:1113).
  • Bureaucrats are a pox. They are supposed to be necessary. Certain chemicals in the body are supposed to be necessary to life, but cause death the moment they increase beyond a suitable limit (Ezra Pound, 1928).
  • To avoid delay, please have all your symptoms ready (Notice in an English doctor’s waiting room).

Doctors’ fees

  • A physician should take his fee without letting his left hand know what his right is doing; it should be taken without a thought, without a look, without a move of the facial muscles; the true physician should hardly be aware that the last friendly grasp of the hand has been made more precious by the touch of gold (Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne).
  • “Lord! My dear sir,” she cried. “How could you think of such a thing? . . . Going after a doctor! Why, what should we do with a doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the poor to fancy themselves ill if there was a doctor at hand! . . . Here I have lived 70 good years in the world and never took physic twice—and never saw the face of a doctor on my own account. And I verily believe if my poor Sir Harry had never seen one neither, he would have been alive now. Ten fees, one after another, did the man take who sent him out of the world (Lady Denham in Sanditon by Jane Austen, 1817).
  • Doctors are just the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and also kill you (Anton Chekhov, Ivanov).
  • God heals and the doctor takes his fees (Benjamin Franklin).
  • If you are going to have doctors you had better have doctors well off . . . . Taking all the round of professions and occupations you will find that every man is the worse for being poor; and the doctor is a specially dangerous man when poor (George Bernard Shaw).
  • All professions are conspiracies against the laiety (George Bernard Shaw).
  • Live so that you can stick out your tongue at the insurance doctor (Don Marquis, Archie and Mehitabel).
  • He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heir (Benjamin Franklin).


  • If your doctor does not think it good for you to sleep, to take wine or some particular meat, do not worry; I will find you another who will disagree with him (Montaigne, 1580).
  • The Balbec doctor, called in to cope with a sudden feverish attack, gave the opinion that I ought not to stay out all day on the beach in the blazing sun during the hot weather, and wrote out various prescriptions for me. My grandmother took these with a show of respect in which I could at once discern her firm resolves to ignore them all (Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove).

Patient dissatisfaction

  • He had what the doctors termed “bilious fever.” But in spite of the fact that they treated him, bled him and made him swallow drugs—he recovered (Tolstoy, War and Peace).
  • Doctor, the pills are good for nothing—I might as well swallow snowballs to cool my reins—I have told you over and over, how hard I am to move; and at this time of day, I ought to know something of my constitution . . . . Prithee send me another prescription—I am as lame and as much tortured in all my limbs as if I was broke upon the wheel (Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker).
  • Poor Dr. R! How many bottles of your tastily prepared and expensive medicines have I not swallowed, in blind confidence and blinder ignorance of the offenses I thus committed against all the principles of that Nature within me. Baffled in his attempts to remedy my ailments, Dr. R—at last resorted to the usual plan adopted by all physicians when their medicines have no power. He recommended change of air and scene, and urged my leaving London, then dark with the fogs of a dreary winter, for the gaiety and sunshine and roses of the Riviera. (Marie Corelli, A Romance of Two Worlds, 1886).
  • Dr. R, of great repute in nervous ailments, attended me for many weeks, with but slight success. He was not to blame, poor man, for his failure to effect a cure. He had only one way of treatment, and he applied it to all his patients with more or less happy results. Some died, some recovered; it was a lottery on which my medical friend staked his reputation, and won. The patients who died were never heard of more—those who recovered sang the praises of their physician everywhere, and sent him gifts of silver plate and hampers of wine, to testify their gratitude (Marie Corelli, A Romance of Two Worlds, 1886).
  • “Fiddlesticks,” Father says, “What do doctors know? They make their livings advising people to do whatever they are not doing at the time, which is the extent of anyone’s knowledge of the degenerate ape” (William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury).
  • Beware of the young doctor and the old barber (Benjamin Franklin).


  • Within these last three days I have passed (you may alter the vowel A to the vowel I) a formidable quantity of blood. When a man makes blood instead of water, he is tempted to think of the possibility of his soon making earth (Sir Walter Scott in his journal as quoted by Sir Douglas Black, BMJ 1:667, 1960).
  • He called the 29-year-old cop into his office and gave him the good news first. No, he didn’t have the clap as he’d feared. He could keep the same girlfriend and he wouldn’t have to make any confessions to his wife. The bad news was that he’d only have the girlfriend for two years. Ditto for the wife. The doctor looked mildly cranky . . . You’ve got red blood cells in your urine. Acute glomerulonephritis. Two years maybe (J. Wambaugh, The Secrets of Harry Bright as quoted by S. Posen, J Roy Soc Med 86: 582).
  • “Your grandmother is doomed,” the doctor said to me. “It is a stroke brought on by uremia. In itself uremia is not necessarily fatal, but this case seems to me hopeless . . .” (Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past).
  • Were I of Caesar’s religion, I should be of his desires, and rather wish to go off at one blow, then to be sawed in pieces by the grating torture of a disease. Men that look no farther than their outsides, think health an appurtenance unto life, and quarrel with their constitutions for being sick; but I, that have examined the parts of man, and know upon what tender filaments that fabrick hangs, do wonder that we are not always so; and considering the thousand doors that lead to death, do thank my God that we can die but once (Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1642).
  • Happiness, like health, is probably also only a passing accident. For a moment or two the organism is irritated so little that it is not conscious of it; for the duration of that moment it is happy. Thus a hog is always happier than a man, and a bacillus is happier than a hog (H. L. Mencken, From the American Mercury, March 1936).
  • Physicians of the utmost fame
    Were called at once, but when they came
    They answered as they took their fees
    “There is no cure for this disease.”

(Hillaire Belloc, 1940).

  • Bring not to see me cease to live
    A doctor full of phrase and fame
    To shake his sapient head
    And give the ill he cannot cure a name.

                      (Matthew Arnold).


  • I firmly believe that if the whole material medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind, and all the worse for the fishes (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
  • The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals (Sir William Osler).
  • One evening, in the course of the usual cheerless dinner party at Windsor Castle, the old earl of Clarendon, with, one suspects too much gallantry and a glass too much of wine, turned to Queen Victoria and asked, “Ma’am, can you tell me the secret of your eternal youth?” Her Majesty’s reply was unequivocal. “Beecham’s pills,” she snapped (Theo Aronson, The King in Love).
  • . . . he was a confirmed dyspeptic. His view of my case was very simple. He said it was nothing but deranged liver. Of course! He suggested I stay for another trip and meantime dose myself with certain patent medicine in which his own belief was absolute. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll buy you two bottles, out of my own pocket. There. I can’t say fairer than that, can I? (Joseph Conrad, The Shadowline).
  • He’s the best physician who knows the worthlessness of most medicines (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Medicine for the dead is too late (Quintillian).
  • If many remedies are prescribed for an illness you can be sure it has no cure (Chekhov).
  • The great thing about this healer was that he relied on Nature. He had made a special study of the symptoms of Nature—when his patient failed in any natural symptom he supplied the poison which caused it—and there you were! (John Galworthy, The Forsyte Saga).
  • I was told that it had long been kept a secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed. I was informed that the effects produced were violent vomiting and purging; for the diuretic effects seemed to have been overlooked. The medication was compounded of twenty or more different herbs; but it was not very difficult for one conversant with these subjects to perceive that the active herb could be no other than foxglove (William Withering, An Account of the Foxglove, 1785).
  • It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride. There cannot be two kinds of medicine—conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work (M. Angell and J. P. Kassirer, New Engl J Med 339: 841).

Science and wisdom

  • A drug is a substance which when injected into a rat will produce a scientific report (Unknown).
  • Medical science is as yet very imperfectly differentiated from common cure-mongering witchcraft (George Bernard Shaw).
  • Who shall decide when doctors disagree (Alexander Pope).
  • Medicine cures the diseases of the body; wisdom, on the other hand, relieves the soul of its sufferings (Democritus, ca. 460–370 BCE).
  • What signifies knowing the names, if you know not the nature of things (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration (Thomas A. Edison, 1931).
  • Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain (Schiller, The Maid of Orleans, Act 3. Sc.6).
  • The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt (Bertrand Russell).
  • In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurred (Sir William Osler, cit. in Am J Nephrol 19: 93).
  • Nothing is more obstinate than a fashionable consensus (Margaret Thatcher).
  • Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress (Thomas A. Edison).
  • I want an autopsy made for the benefit of my fellow men (Johann Basedow, German educator).
  • In the field of observation, luck favors the prepared mind (Louis Pasteur).
  • “Oh,” said the noseless story-teller, “what is man . . . but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine? You may even ask which is the more intense craving or pleasure: to drink or to make water” (Isak Dinesen, “Seven gothic tales”in The Dreamers).
  • God sent us here to make mistakes (Ella Wheeler Wilcox in Poems that Touch the Heart, 1941).
  • I have so often been mistaken that I no longer blush for it (Napoleon).
  • It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics).
  • Familiarity breeds contempt—and children (Mark Twain).

Youth and old age

  • The warm desires, the long expectations of youth are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world. They are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain, while the few who have climbed to the summit aspire to descend or expect to fall. In old age the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing hallelujah is above the clouds; and the vanity on authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writings (Edward Gibbon).
  • Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than for settled business . . . . Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success (Francis Bacon).
  • One of the worst things that can happen to a man is for him to work and study hard in order to benefit others and make his own name and then be prevented by sickness, or perhaps death itself, from finally completing what he has begun (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists).
  • It is hard to conceive that the old, whose thoughts have been all thought out, should ever love to live alone. Solitude is surely for the young, who have time before them for the execution of schemes, and who can, therefore, take delight in thinking (Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset).
  • You deprive me of solitude without affording me comfort (Mme de Sevigne).
  • There is an innocence in admiration. It is possessed by someone to whom it has not yet occurred that he too might be admired some day (Friedrich Nietzsche).
  • Those whom the gods love, die young (Plautus, ca. 200 BCE).
  • For certain people after fifty, litigation takes the place of sex (Gore Vidal).
  • One of the most surprising things in life is the sudden realization that one has become old (Leo Trotsky).

Understanding the world  

  • By numberless examples it will evidently appear that human affairs are as subject to change and fluctuation as the waters of the sea agitated by the winds (Gucciardini, History of Italy).
  • “This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel (Horace Walpole, 1769).
  • And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep (Byron, Don Juan).
  • He that best understands the world, least likes it (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Life is far too important a thing to ever talk seriously about (Oscar Wilde).
  • Rien ne dure comme le provisoire (Unknown). [Nothing endures like the temporary.]
  • Facts are stranger than fiction, for things sometimes happen that never entered into the mind of man to imagine or invent (T. C. Haliburton, 1853).

Feelings and passions

  • No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes (Virginia Woolf, Orlando).
  • Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing (Herman Melville, Moby Dick).
  • It is very hard, that necessity of listening to a man who says nothing (Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, 1864).
  • Anyone who is popular is likely to be hated (Yogi Berra).
  • A celebrity is someone famous for being well known (Morris Fishbein).
  • Injuries may be forgiven, but not forgotten (Aesop).
  • Philosophy teaches us to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of others (Oscar Wilde).
  • There are three classes: those who see; those who see when they are shown; and those who do not see (Leonardo Da Vinci).
  • Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed (Bertrand Russell).


  • War is too serious to be entrusted to generals (Georges Clemenceau, 1919).
  • Democracy means government by discussion, but is only effective if you can stop people talking (Clement Atlee).
  • Democracy requires a certain relish for confusion (Molly Ivins).
  • He who eats the sultan’s bread, fights with the sultan’s sword (Arab proverb).
  • The diversity of language alienates man from man (St. Augustine).
  • The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away (Ronald Reagan).
  • Academic and aristocratic people live in such an uncommon atmosphere that common sense can rarely reach them (Samuel Butler).
  • A strong appetite for contradiction (Unknown).
  • It is easier to split the atom than a prejudice (Einstein).
  • As the old ones sing so the young ones pipe (Proverb).
  • We are rapidly becoming a nation of two kinds of people: millionaires and tramps (Ignatius Donley).
  • . . . it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both (Machiavelli).
  • Let them eat cake (Princesse de Lamballe).
  • After us the deluge (Mme de Pompadour to Louis XV).

Advice for living

  • The pains and pleasures of the body, howsoever important to ourselves, are an indelicate subject of conversation (Edward Gibbon).
  • He goes furthest who knows not whither he is going (Oliver Cromwell).
  • It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating (Oscar Wilde).
  • A man afflicted with melancholy “must divert distressing thoughts and not combat with them . . . He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed take a book and read and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise (Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson).
  • If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything (Mark Twain).
  • Love your neighbor, but don’t pull down your hedge (Benjamin Franklin, 1754).
  • Whoever gossips to you will gossip of you (Spanish proverb).
  • We must set limits to our wishes, curb our desires, moderate our anger, always remembering that an individual can attain only an infinitesimal share in anything that is worth having; and that on the other hand, everyone must incur many of the ills of life (Arthur Schopenhauer).
  • Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow (Mark Twain).
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good (Samuel Johnson).
  • Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains may be great—and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr. Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stockbrokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr. Nickleby (Charles Dickens, 1839).
  • Nine-tenths of the miseries and vices of mankind proceed from idleness (Thomas Carlyle).
  • The wise man knows of all things, as far as possible, although he has no knowledge of each of them in detail (Aristotle).
  • A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul (Proverbs 18:7).
  • Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things (Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers).
  • He who busies himself in mean occupations, produces in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good (Plutarch, Plutarch’s  Lives).
  • There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it, and when he can (Mark Twain).
  • Freedom is the first wish of our heart; freedom is the first blessing of nature; and unless we bind ourselves with voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years (Edward Gibbon).
  • You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you (Dale Carnegie).
  • Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever (M. K. Gandhi).
  • A period of silence on your part would be appreciated (Clement Atlee to Harold Laski).
  • Even victors are by victory undone (Dryden).

History (pro)

  • A page of history is worth a pound of logic (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
  • Those who do not know history will forever remain children (Cicero).
  • Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (Santayana).
  • A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass (Sioux Proverb).
  • History is more than just what happened. It’s what we make of what happened (Julia Keller, Chicago Trib; 11 Sept 05).
  • . . . is a vast early warning system (Norman Cousins).
  • . . . is philosophy learned from examples (Dionysus of Halicarnassus).
  • . . . illumes reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life (Cicero).
  • . . . is a pact between the  dead, the living, and the yet unborn (Edmund Burke).

History (against)

  • . . . is more or less bunk (Henry Ford).
  • . . . fables agreed upon (Voltaire).
  • . . . a biography of a few stout and earnest persons (Emerson).
  • . . . the devil’s scripture (Byron).
  • . . . a vast Mississippi of falsehoods (Matthew Arnold).
  • . . . a confused heap of facts (Lord Chesterfield).
  • . . . a seductive liar (George Ball).
  • . . . the portrayal of crimes and misfortunes (Voltaire).
  • . . . nothing more than the belief in falsehood (Nietzche).
  • . . . a record of triumphs, disasters, and follies of top people (Philip Howard).
  • . . . never embraces more than a small part of reality (La Rochefoucauld).
  • . . . an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant (John Barth).
  • A man’s eyes should be torn out if he can only see the past (Joseph Stalin).

Love and marriage

  • A married man will do anything for money (Talleyrand).
  • Chance is less blind than love (Unknown).
  • It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop than with a brawling wife in a wide house (Proverbs 21:9).
  • A man’s mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault (Walter Baghehot).
  • A wise woman will always have her husband have his way (Sheridan).
  • You can bear your own faults, and why not a fault in your wife (Benjamin Franklin).
  • Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures (Samuel Johnson).
  • The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul (W. B. Yeats).


  • I don’t think pornography is very harmful, but it is terribly, terribly boring (Noel Coward).
  • The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do (Walter Bagehot).
  • Consistency is the last resort of the unimaginative (Oscar Wilde).
  • Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (Emerson).
  • It always saddens me when a man of talent dies, for the earth has more need of such men than heaven does (George Lichtenberg, 1789).
  • Poetry: Sonorous declaration of the evidently untrue (Unknown).
  • Three Victorian principles: Restriction, ritual, routine (Unknown).
  • I shoulda’ stood in bed (Lou Nova, after reviving from his knockout by Joe Louis).
  • No man is a hero to his valet de chamber (Hegel).

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