Daumier’s doctors

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

 

NLM description: Caricature: A physician seated at his desk has slipped into phantasmagorical dream as he muses over his inability to prevent his patients from dying.

“Le médecin : Pourquoi, diable! mes malades s’en vont-ils donc tous?”. Caricature by Daumier. National Library of Medicine. No known copyright restrictions.

“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr

 

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) was a “fundamentally discontented” French social critic, painter, sculptor, and printmaker. He produced over 100 sculptures, 500 paintings, 1000 drawings, 1000 engravings, and 4000 lithographs.1 Balzac said of his work, “There is something of Michelangelo in him.” Daumier hated anything that deprived man of his freedom or individuality, including the church, the bourgeoisie, lawyers and judges, the monarchy, and medicine.

He earned his living by producing caricatures and cartoons for illustrated magazines. He was charged on two occasions with “contempt for the king’s person” because of some cartoons and spent time in prison along with his editor. He created over 100 drawings about doctors, calling them “profiteers, mouthers of clichés, montebanks.” In his drawings they are pedantic, vain, avid, egotistic, or hard and indifferent. Their methods of treatment included dieting, leeches, and “an absurd arsenal of remedies.” Mondor hoped that upon seeing these caricatures, doctors would correct “certain failings.”

What follows are the captions from five cartoons:

1. Rounds (1837) – There you have it, Gentlemen. You’ve seen that this operation that everyone said was impossible was performed successfully.

– But doctor, the patient is dead.

– So what? She would have died even without the operation.

2. Doctor to patient (1844) – Wow, I’m delighted. You have yellow fever. This is the first time I’ve been lucky enough to have a patient with this disease.

3. Doctor (D) and nurse (N) (1840) – D: How’s the patient? -N: Alas, he died this morning at six o’clock. -D: Ah, then he didn’t take my medicine. -N: But sir, he did. -D: Then he must have taken too much. -N: No, sir. -D: Then he didn’t take enough.

4. Two doctors, Bertrand (B) and Robert (R) (1838) – B: The patient is weak. She won’t survive. The operation is impracticable. -R: Impracticable! Nothing is impracticable for a beginner. If we fail, we remain nobodies. If by chance we succeed, our reputations are made. -Both: Let’s do it.

5. The Doctor (1833) See image. A doctor is sitting at his desk, looking pensive. A bust of Hippocrates looks down at him. On his desk and at his feet are a group of miniature devils carrying dead bodies, building coffins, and carrying coffins, all led by a skeletal grim reaper with his scythe. The doctor asks himself, “Why the Hell do all my patients die? I bleed them, I purge them, I medicate them. I simply don’t understand it.”

Daumier probably had no personal grudge against physicians. He rarely consulted them and was in good health until 1856, when a chronic illness began. Pharmacists were also targets of his satire. A discussion between two pharmacists: Make some ointment out of suet, brick dust, or starch. Give it a name (“any gibberish”), advertise it, and in ten years we’ve made a million.

Dentists were also included. Dentist (D) and patient (P) (1837) -P: My God, you pulled out two good teeth and left the two bad ones. -D: [aside: Damn!] They would have eventually rotted and caused you pain. There’ll be plenty of time to pull out the bad ones.

Daumier could be critical of patients as well, but sometimes showed sympathy. He said of the hypochondriac: “This type of citizen is the providence of the medical profession, the benediction of the drug trade.” He also portrayed a grossly overweight patient telling his doctor, “Doctor, I believe I’m consumptive.” However, his drawings showed sufferers of abdominal cramps and of headaches as tormented by small devils causing pain with saws, hammers, and nails.

As Henri Mondor stated: “Our imaginations are stimulated by experiences and situations similar to those of which we have been victims or beneficiaries. Men, women, and children in need of medical assistance tell the story in this narrative, which can be told and interpreted over and over again … Daumier’s work remains contemporary.”1

 

Note

Nearly all the material in this paper was found in: Henri Mondor. Doctors and Medicine in the Works of Daumier. Boston: Boston Book and Art Shop, Inc., 1960.

 

Reference

  1. Honoré Daumier. Wikipedia.

 


 

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

 

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