Romantic medics - alive and kicking?
St Valentine is a widely recognised 3rd century Roman saint commemorated on February 14 and associated since the Middle Ages with a tradition of romantic or courtly love. Nothing is reliably known of St Valentine except his name and the fact that he died on February 14 on the Via Flamina in Rome. The Feast of St Valentine is, however, an official feast day in the Anglican and Lutheran churches, as well as providing a reason for many to patronise card, flower, chocolate and jewellery sellers in their post-Christmas slump. But do medics indulge in such trifles as romantic love? Has modern living removed all motivation to uphold these traditions, or have we all become just a little bit cynical about another "Hallmark holiday"?
There have certainly been romantic medics in the past - a personal favourite is John Keats, who registered as a medical student at Guy's Hospital and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he became a dresser, the equivalent of a FY1/junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine. However, medicine reduced time available for writing and he grew ambivalent about his medical career. He received his apothecary's licence in 1816, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon. His love letters to Fanny Brawne (she preserved 36 of them) are an inspiration for any smitten medic. In one he writes:
"You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more have I lov'd. In every way - even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you. I have vex'd you too much. But for Love! Can I help it? You are always new. The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass'd my window at home yesterday, I was fill'd with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time."
Somerset Maugham qualified from St Thomas's and practised until the first print run of 'Liza of Lambeth' (a tale of working-class adultery and its consequences, written after doing an obstetric attachment there as a student) sold out in a matter of weeks. Maugham decided to drop medicine and embarked on his 65-year authoring career. He wrote:
"This love was a torment, and he resented bitterly the subjugation in which it held him; he was a prisoner and he longed for freedom. Sometimes he awoke in the morning and felt nothing; his soul leaped, for he thought he was free; he loved no longer; but in a little while, as he grew wide awake, the pain settled in his heart, and he knew that he was not cured yet."
Anton Chekhov pre-dates Maugham. After completing his schooling he joined his family in Moscow and was admitted to the medical school there. In 1884 he qualified as a physician, which he considered his principal profession though he made little money from it and treated the poor free of charge. Chekhov was of a more pragmatic inclination and in 'The Cherry Orchard' he writes:
"What she can't get into her narrow mind is that we're above such things as love. Our whole aim - the whole sense of our life - is to avoid petty illusions that stop us being free and happy." and "I promise to be an excellent husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, will not appear every day in my sky."
Not a 'true doctor' I know, but I am also fond of Dr Seuss, who says: "You know you're in love when you can't fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams."
I have had little personal experience of romantic medics, having married my childhood sweetheart - an engineer. However, 20 or so years ago, whilst on an undergraduate attachment to Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton, I found a single red rose on the floor outside my student room. There was also one for my next door neighbour, Jo. They had been left by the two young men with us - both of whom had girlfriends and had no other motivation than making us smile when we saw them.
A call to arms. Take inspiration from our forebears and make someone smile - they'll never forget it.
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