In this revised version of his 1935 autobiography, Morris, the author of 10 nonfiction books (Hopkins Pond and other sketches, 1896, etc.) writes about his career during a transformative age when medicine moved from horror to hospital.
Some things were better back in the good old days; not medicine. Morris, a renowned physician and surgeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, maintained a career that saw important medical developments: the introduction of Joseph Lister’s pioneering antiseptic procedures, for instance, and the use of anesthesia becoming commonplace during surgery. It’s hard to imagine that surgeons once treasured the rancid smell of that “good old surgical stink” produced by dried blood and pus. They operated in ordinary frock coats and, Morris recalls, wiped their knives across their boots to clean them before cutting into a patient. Operations were commonly done at a person’s home and as quickly as possible since without anesthesia the patient couldn’t survive the agony of an extended cutting session. Over the course of Morris’ career, hospitals became germ-free centers of healing rather than foul prisons for the insane and enfeebled. Written in a wry, self-deprecating style, Morris’ accessible, entertaining book is punctuated by examples and stories. It works on another level, too, as a peek into an achingly beautiful America now gone, when seemingly everyone in New York City knew each other, and the countryside beyond cities was filled with streams, woods and wild game. When it first appeared in 1935, Morris’ book was a best-seller; this revision from Gosden and Walker (Morris’ granddaughter) could easily do the same. It presents a multifaceted portrait: a conscientious, dedicated physician who refuses to accept a fee if he’s unsuccessful; a profession shrugging off the chains of ignorant tradition for the sterile coat of science; and a fertile country destroyed by frenzied building and avarice. Considering the current mess of health care and environmental decline, readers will weep for time passed.
Far more of a human and social portrait than a medical text, this reissue fills the prescription for fascinating reading.