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Revisionism of Medical Doctor Pioneers: Heroes or Monsters?

Revisionism of history is generally a valuable approach to derive the truth of historical events. Unfortunately, revisionism is often done for political reasons, where striving for truth is not the principle pursuit.

I always favor the pursuit of truth in everything. But I am opposed to kooky revisionism, which has recently been termed presentism: holding characters from the past accountable according to the mores of the present.

Wisdom-sense informs us that denigrating George Washington because he owned slaves and Abraham Lincoln for... I am not sure what.... is modern Woke folly. Generally positive-famous people from the past were not that nice, compared to the popular vision of them- this is essentially always true: highly accomplished historical figures, especially if victory in war is part of the positive opinion, generally did a number of bad things. This reflects the observation of Winston Churchill: history is told by the victors. On the other hand, historical villains often are not as bad as the traditional historical opinion (Richard II of England, maybe also Richard III, probably not as bad as popularly thought)- but in a number of cases it remains unchanged (Hitler).

Medical heroes probably legitimately should be subject to historical revisionism. As a group, probably the pioneers of various surgical procedures, although having achieved important advances in surgical technique, often it came at the expense of victim-patients. Among the most controversial of the historical figures is James Marion Sims who in the 1840s bound black women slaves to the operating table, often with repeat surgeries, and without anesthesia. He tested surgical procedures, often the manage injuries, such as fistulas, that he created on them. Yes surgical advances, but inexcusable misanthropy against blacks and misanthropy: my revisionism, at any time in history, he behaved like a monster. William Beecher Scoville and Walter Jackson Freeman II. were the twin monsters of frontal lobotomy. They both treated patients rather badly, like objects (which was customary at the time) but performed and promoted the dangerous, damaging and worthless procedure of frontal lobotomy. Perhaps the most famous victim of frontal lobotomy is Rosemary Kennedy, sister of John F Kennedy. Scoville and Freeman, both monsters, with slightly different evil composition.

One could re-evaluate all surgical pioneers, and I suspect the majority could be historically revised as monsters. The important contribution of such an exercise is not to monsterize, those once thought to be heroes, but rather to learn from their ethical mistakes. The unifying themes that would be shown would be a combination of: intolerable egotism, self-righteousness, and objectifying patients. A number with self-important hostile behavior in the operating room. The important lessons we as physicians should learn from the past: include: to lose the paternalistic pattern of relation to patients, to treat patients with respect, to listen to them (eg: if they say they were made sick from a GBCA injection in MRI- believe them), be respectful of staff, and do not operate drunk.

As I have touched on before with the concept of medical misconduct in general. it is appropriate to quantify the extent of damages, that revisionistic re-evaluation can make.

This will be the subject of a separate blog.

Richard Semelka, MD


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