Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Henrik Ibsen’s diagnosis of the conscience

Sally Metzler
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Cover of An Enemy of the People depicting a man on a porch looking out at a lake

Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, An Enemy of the People, thought he had finally landed the ideal position as physician for an idyllic Norwegian resort town. He was well-paid and well-connected; his brother was even the mayor. Life and livelihood centered on the public baths celebrated for the healing powers of the salutary waters. As the play unfolds, the upcoming tourist season is anticipated as one of the best ever.

But Dr. Stockmann had been troubled by what he deemed an unsettling occurrence of virulent afflictions such as dysentery and typhoid among the spa guests, and therefore secretly tested the water for bacteria. The results were conclusive: the water was contaminated, horribly infested with bacteria ten times over the accepted levels. The good doctor assumes he will be the town hero for his discovery. He is drastically delusional, as his discovery means the demise of the public baths and the complete ruin of the town’s economy. Purifying the water would take several years and millions of kronor that would come from raising taxes on the townspeople.

His brother, the mayor, pleads with Dr. Stockmann to keep quiet until the right solution could be found. Dr. Stockmann indeed faces the most difficult diagnosis in his life: staying silent would mean guests would likely become ill, if not die; but announcing the contamination to the public would ruin everyone’s life (and that of the doctor as well). His conscience, however, is unyielding: Dr. Stockmann forges ahead, alerting the townspeople, the newspaper, and ignoring the pleas from his brother, his pregnant wife, and close friends. He even convened a public meeting, hoping to reason with the townspeople, but this turned out to be a disaster. Though trying to save people’s lives, his approach was all wrong, lashing out at the crowd, declaring them “stupid” among a slew of invectives. Rather than lauded as a hero, he was publicly denounced as an Enemy of the People. And if the situation were not dire enough, an angry mob raided and vandalized the doctor’s home.

Was the populace stupid? Were they simply greedy, concerned more about their pocketbooks than public safety? Seemingly, yes, but it must be recalled that at the time Ibsen wrote his drama, germ theory was still somewhat in its nascent ascendancy of acceptance. Incomprehensible to audiences today, in 1879 not everyone embraced the new science that dangerous parasites, invisible to the naked eye, could lurk in what appeared as clear, clean water. Dr. Stockmann encountered “belief perseverance”—the notion of clinging to a long-held conviction despite empirical evidence completely to the contrary. Society craves continuity, and leaps to the opposite side under usually dire consequences (in the case of revolutions), or when the opposition ceases to exist, cogently expressed by physicist Max Planck: “the new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1

Dr. Stockmann lashed out at the cynics, calling them ignorant. Many physicians and scientists have faced inscrutable injustice and hardship for their discoveries. Such is the case of Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865), who championed new antiseptic procedures in obstetrics. Dr. Semmelweis noticed a particularly high mortality rate of childbed fever in a Viennese maternity ward. He ascertained discovered that the doctors treating these women had often come directly from performing an autopsy, so he insisted that these physicians wash their hands, as they were likely contaminating the mothers. But his campaign was met with derision on several fronts, as it implied that the doctors were in fact infecting their own patients. Sadly, Ignaz Semmelweis went mad, and was committed to a mental asylum at the age of forty-seven, and even more ironic, he died of sepsis.2

Looking back to Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, was there another solution to the dilemma of his disastrous disclosure? Ibsen lauds Stockmann as the hero, “a man standing alone” for justice. But perhaps the same result could have been attained without destroying the reputation of the baths and thus the economy of the town for eternity. Dr. Stockmann, had he been able to negotiate with his brother, might have closed temporarily the baths for “remodeling.”

Ibsen’s play, aside from delivering a suspense-filled drama, poses relevant dilemmas for society today. Scientific advances, in fact any new discovery, though on the side of right and for the greater good, can threaten one’s sense of equilibrium. Knowledge can be explosive, and it is the method of delivery which often sounds the death knell of acceptance. Discoveries are only the first part of the battle; what one does with the knowledge is equally, if not more important.


  1. Eisenck, Hans J. (1990). Rebel with a Cause. London: W. H. Allen. p. 67.
  2. For a brief discussion on the discovery and struggle of Dr. Semmelweis, see: Constance E. Putnam, Lajos Markusovszky: Semmelweis’s Best Friend, Hektoen International, Spring 2016 (http://hekint.org/2017/02/01/lajos-markusovszky-semmelweiss-best-friend/) and https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives

SALLY METZLER, Ph.D, is the director of the art collection at the Union League Club in Chicago.

Spring 2018



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