Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/October 1883/Editor's Table



WE are gratified in being able to report that the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held this year at Minneapolis, was most satisfactory and successful. It was, of course, not so large as it would have been if convened in a more central and accessible place, but we have attended smaller gatherings of this body a good deal nearer the seaboard. About three hundred members were in attendance, which, considering the obstacle of distance to be overcome by many of them, shows that there is a strong and well-sustained interest in the work of the Association. But the success of such a meeting is by no means dependent upon the extent of the congregated membership, for it may be assumed that those present were mainly selected by the earnestness of their interest in the objects of the organization. A successful scientific meeting, so remote from the great centers of population, is the best test of the vigor and prosperity of the body. No doubt it is desirable that it should most frequently meet at points of average accessibility; but, as the policy of the Association embraces the whole country in the sphere of its influence, and as it is designed, at least partially, to encourage the popular interest in science by visiting successively all the leading cities, it is well that outlying places should not be habitually neglected. The strangers were welcomed with the most hospitable entertainment by the citizens of Minneapolis, and everything was done to make their visit agreeable.

The work of the American Association on this occasion was excellent on the whole, and does not suffer by comparison with that of previous gatherings. There was a large list of papers of quite average merit, and some of them of unusual interest. Able addresses were delivered by the chairmen of the sections, and the one by Professor Rowland, of Johns Hopkins University, before the Section of Physics, we hope to give our readers in the next number of the "Monthly." The retiring president, Principal Dawson, of Montreal, gave an able address on "Some Unsolved Problems in Geology," the first part of which will be found in our columns this month. It is mainly devoted to a discussion of the evolution hypothesis, of which Dr. Dawson can not be claimed as an adherent, and he improved the occasion to give a forcible exposition of its difficulties from the geological point of view. It is undeniable that these difficulties are many and formidable, and it will, no doubt, take a long time to clear them up, while the solution of still unresolved problems will very possibly result in important modifications of the theory as now entertained. But the establishment of the doctrine of evolution as a comprehensive law of nature is no longer dependent upon its freedom from embarrassments or that absolute completeness of proof which will only become possible with the future extension of knowledge. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the evidence for it is so varied, so consistent, and so irresistible, as to compel its broad acceptance by men of science, who, while disagreeing upon many of its questions, acknowledge that it is now indispensable as a guide to the most multifarious investigations. It is gratifying to observe that the spirit of passion, dogmatism, and prejudice, which has been so rife in connection with this discussion during the past generation, is measurably subsiding, and that the controverted questions that remain are considered with increasing calmness, candor, and loyalty to truth.


Some offense has been taken at parts of Dr. Shepherd's article on "Medical Quacks and Quackeries," which appeared in our June issue. The writer ranked homœopathy as a form of quackery, and cited certain of the dogmas of Hahnemann, founder of the school, in justification of his charge. "The Popular Science Monthly" is censured for lending the weight of its authority to this accusation, and we have received sundry replies to Dr. Shepherd's strictures, of various merit, one of which, from an eminent source, is herewith printed.

It seems hardly correct to charge the "Monthly" with lending its influence to partisan objects in this matter, because the expression of an opinion on the part of a contributor by no means commits the magazine to it. Many periodicals advertise that the editors do not hold themselves responsible for the views of their writers: we have not done this, because it seemed superfluous. We often print statements with which we do not agree, and sometimes express dissent; but it by no means follows that a failure to protest is to be construed into an indorsement of all that appears in our pages; while certainly no one would expect that we should limit ourselves to printing only that which perfectly accords with our own notions. That we are not partisans in this matter should have been inferred from our frequent habit of giving replies to one-sided statements, as is done in the present number, and also from the fact that we have published sharp reflections upon the regular school of medicine. The article entitled "Quackery within the Profession," which appeared in the March number of the "Monthly" of last year, sufficiently attests this: it was an unsparing denunciation of the quackish tendencies that are growing up within the limits of the old orthodox medical school.

We are much inclined to accept the view taken in that article, which is that "systems and cures of any class or description" adopted by any school of medicine are of the nature of quackery. We agree with the writer when he says: "There is no system, or cure, or charm, or nostrum, known to the profession; our calling consists solely in the rational study and treatment of disease on common-sense principles." Whether a valid "system" of practical medicine will ever become possible is doubtful, but it is sufficiently certain that the present state of science does not warrant it; and, in this condition of things, any one method of cure to be generally followed must be misleading and injurious. Yet, to the mass of the people, there is something fascinating in a medical theory that can be put into a neat and simple formula. And the effect of this is more pernicious in proportion as these formulas are made the rallying-cries of the different schools of medical practice. These schools are candidates for popular favor. The patronage of the physician comes from the people; the people are ignorant and prejudiced, and easily taken by catch-words and clap-trap; while the doctors, as a class, are sufficiently human to avail themselves more or less of this state of facts in the way of business. The tendency of practitioners is to magnify the differences among the several 'pathies, and thus to favor the notion that some one of them contains the fundamental truth, while all others are essentially erroneous, and, as the people are generally educated to identify themselves with sects and parties, they are well prepared to become partisans in the matter of medical treatment. Thus doctors and laymen react upon each other to strengthen injurious prejudices. As Dr. R. O. Beard remarked, in an article upon "The Schools of Medicine," which we printed last February: "Rooted in the professional ignorance and bigotry of almost a century ago, fostered by the bitter rivalries and exclusivism of opposing theorists, these differences have been taken up and fed by popular opinion, until they seriously embarrass the progress of medical knowledge, and tend to destroy all faith in the science and art of healing. The medical fraternity at large, and of both schools alike, is responsible for this unfortunate condition of affairs. When professional men, who, supposably, represent the best phases of liberal thought and scientific culture, lend their names to the partisanship of mere theory, and array themselves under sectarian titles which signify their adherence to an exclusive dogma, it is small wonder that the laity should follow in their footsteps, and cast their views into the yet narrower mold of unreasoning prejudice."

The fact is, medical practice is far in advance of medical theory. Physicians can do a good deal more than they can explain. The advice of the old judge to the young judge—"Refrain from too much expounding, for you will generally be right in your decisions and wrong in your reasons for them"—is not without its bearing upon the medical profession. Medical philosophizing may be well, but it must be kept within limits, or it will certainly mislead in practice. The doctor who has a Lobby in which he profoundly believes will be dangerous in the sick-room. The most important revolution in medicine that has ever taken place is that modern change of view by which the practitioner leaves more and more to nature in the conduct of his art and, as a consequence, assigns an ever-increasing value to hygienic considerations.

In regard to homœopathy, there can be little doubt that its practical influence has very much coincided with the inevitable modern tendency to abandon heroic treatment, and give nature a better chance. But homœopathic theory is quite another thing. Dr. Bayard, in the paper we publish, written to vindicate its claims, says that "homœopathy, as a science, is the law of the vital force"; and, again, "disease is the impairment of the equalization of the vital force." But the most advanced scientific thinkers are seriously asking, Is there any such thing as the vital force? or, if there be such a thing, what is it? Certainly it is a something winch played a far larger part in medicine when the scientific knowledge of life was in its lowest condition. Everything in the organic economy not understood was then ascribed to "the vital force." Every step of physiological progress has consisted in wresting something from "the vital force," and explaining it in some intelligible way. As physiological problems have been resolved by physical and chemical principles, and taken their place among the proved results of science, "the vital force" is no longer invoked to account for them. Its sphere has, therefore, been gradually restricted, and its intrenchment is still in the narrowing field of physiological mystery. To ascribe an effect to "the vital force" is now but another way of saying that we do not understand its cause. How the mysterious and the inexplicable can become the basis of a special and distinctive science is itself something of a mystery. The article of Mr. Shipman on "Matter Living and Not-Living" will be read with interest in connection with that of Dr. Bayard.