Publication information
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Source: Medical News
Source type: journal
Document type: letter
Document title: “Our London Letter”
Author(s): anonymous
Date of publication: 5 October 1901
Volume number: 79
Issue number: 14
Pagination: 552-53 (excerpt below includes only page 552)

“Our London Letter.” Medical News 5 Oct. 1901 v79n14: pp. 552-53.
William McKinley (death: international response); William McKinley (medical care: international response).
Named persons
Jean-Baptiste Barth; Marie François Sadi Carnot; Frederick III; Ulysses S. Grant; Lear; Morell Mackenzie; William McKinley; Henry Percy [identified as Hotspur below]; Presley M. Rixey; Elise Dosne Thiers; Victoria.


Our London Letter [excerpt]


(From Our Special Correspondent.)

LONDON, September 21, 1901.     


     THE medical profession here has fully shared in the indignation and deep sorrow universally felt by the British people at the shocking crime of which Mr. McKinley was the victim. Many of us, perhaps, were a little doubtful as to the wisdom of the early bulletins which to those who had had experience of the wayward course so often taken by abdominal wounds seemed imprudently optimistic. But we also knew that the late President was in the hands of surgeons on whose skill and judgment the most implicit reliance could be placed; and we awaited the result with confidence. The shock of the fatal issue was all the greater when it came. It has been said that the lowest death of human misery is reached by the commander of a beaten army; but I have often thought that the position of physicians and surgeons who have to fight a losing battle against death at the bedside of one of the potentates of the world is just as unenviable. For many years one of our foremost surgeons was known to the public as “the man who killed the Emperor,” and I have heard an American say in a public speech here that General Grant’s end was hastened by the injudicious overfeeding forced on him by his physicians. The late Czar dismissed a physician in whom he had put his trust for years because he failed to achieve the impossible. Foolish criticisms, by no means confined to the laity, have been heard on the way in which the wound which caused the death of President Carnot was dealt with, although the case was from the first past all surgery.
     Some superfine gentlemen of the medical profession here profess to feel disgust at the publication in our leading newspaper, the Times, of details as to the attempted rectal feeding and its consequences in the case of your late President. Such prudery in a doctor reminds one of the dainty lordling who complained to Hotspur of the soldiers who brought a slovenly unhandsome corse betwixt the wind and his nobility. The question of bulletins must always be a difficult one, and any violation of the privacy of the sick-room is of course in the highest degree indecent. But it is surely absurd to treat the case of the ruler of a powerful nation as on the level with that of an ordinary citizen. The people have, it seems to me, every right to know the truth—if not the whole truth—as to the condition of one in whose existence each of them may justly claim to have a personal interest. Presidents, princes and potentates and those about them should encourage this curiosity within reasonable limits; in the case of monarchs, at any rate, it would augur ill for the continuance of the dynasty if the people were indifferent about their illnesses. This is a truth which the Royal Family of Great Britain has never yet grasped. The late Queen, our present “most gracious” sovereign, and even the smaller fry of Royal personages have always shown a morbid dislike of publicity in regard to the ills their august flesh has from time to time been heir to. I suppose they do not care to have it known that they are subject to the common lot of humanity. Hence bulletins about them are edited with the rigor of a Russian press censor, and are carefully pruned of any expression that might be likely to convey anything but a vague general statement. Poor Lear said his hand smacked of humanity. The humblest of our Royalties would not make such an admission about any part of his sacrosanct person. As a curious instance of the courtly reticence imposed on physicians even after the death of a royal patient, I may quote a passage from the bulletin in which the death of Queen Victoria was announced. It was stated that “in the last few hours of life paresis of the pulmonary nerves set in, the heart beating steadily to the end.” The exact meaning of this cryptic phrase was the subject of some discussion among members of the medical fraternity, and at last some one plucked up courage to ask one of the distinguished men who had ministered to the Queen in her last moments what the words were intended to convey. He threw the responsibility on the author of the bulletin, suggesting, however, that the phrase “paresis of the pulmonary nerves” was intended to get over the ugly term “tracheal râles.” The author’s own account was that it was used to cover the act of dying from what is known as paralytic filling of the lungs. So that all this mystery and diplomatic ingenuity of phrase were thought to be necessary to avoid the blasphemy of saying that the Queen had the death-rattle in her throat as she passed into the land of shadows!
     In the account of the President’s death given in our newspapers it was stated that the announcement of the fatal result was made by Dr. Rixey in the words “The President is dead!” There is a simple dignity about this that compares very favorably with some announcements of a similar kind that have been made in Europe. It is said that the fact of Queen Victoria having vacated the throne she had occupied so long was notified to the heir of the crown by one of the physicians as follows: “Your Majesty, Her Majesty is dead!” For grotesque incongruity this would be difficult to beat. After the close of the long agony of the Emperor Frederick of Germany, Sir Morell Mackenzie announced the fact to those about the bed with uncouth bluntness in the words “He is quite dead now.” The most graceful of such announcements that I have seen is that of Dr. Barth to Madame Thiers on the death of the first President of the new French Republic: “Madame, votre illustre mari a vécu!”



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