Bernard de Voto
The Literary Fallacy
The story of burns is one small part of the story of medicine in the 1920's. Looking back over the annals of American medicine in that decade, one feels that it opened a finer era in human life. Mysteries that had balked medicine throughout history were solved. The area of human knowledge and therefore of human control was greatly expanded. some kinds of suffering and some kinds of death were mastered. Afflictions of entire populations were reduced. The hope of ordinary people everywhere to live more comfortably, with less pain, with better functioning, was increased. Whether in the control of infection, rhe control of epidemics, the deficiency diseases, nutrition, surgery, anesthesia, childbirth, endocrinology, psychiatry—wherever you approach medicine you see that you have entered a new era of human knowledge. The general cultural heritage has been so enriched that mankind is able to deal with some of its eternal problems more effectively than, up to then, anyone had dared to think possible.
To work toward the conquest of pain, toward the reduction of fear and crippling and unnecessary death, toward the enhancement of human functioning, toward the expansion of knowledge—I suppose that to work toward such ends is not ignoble. Medical men have never widely considered themselves a superior class, and certainly no one who knows them well has ever so considered them. Original sin has not been washed from them. The profession as a whole, its members, its general ideas, its specific ideas, can be arranged in the bell-shaped curve that describes rhe rest of us. Look at any given medical scientist of the period, or ar any given moment of the science, and there is a fair chance that you will see nothing in particular ro rejoice about. But look at the ten years of medicine, the 1920's in America, and you are looking at one of history's heroic ages.
This conquest of ignorance was forced to proceed without the attention of the literary folk who for the common good undertook to determine the worth of American civilization. I have remarked that you cannot find John Wesley Powell in the critical systems. Likewise it is not important to the systems that medicine was constructing a new world. Systematic criticism assigned no value to such kinds of creation. If it had undertaken to pass judgment anyone could have worked out its answer in advance, just as its answer would have been worked out in advance. During the 1920's it would have said that medical research was not a truly cultural activity, since it did not deal with letters or leadership or beauty or the imagination—just as during the 1930's it would have said that medicine was a particularly reactionary phase of capitalistic decay. At neither time would it have been troubled by the fact that pernicious-anemia could now be cured or that knowledge had been increased.