J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Medical Poet and a “Cancer Quack”

Dr. Lemuel Hopkins (1750-1801) was born and trained in Waterbury, Connecticut. He served briefly in the Revolutionary War, his early biographies say—without specifying how. In 1784 Hopkins moved to Hartford and became one of that town’s conservative wits, publishing essays and verse.

Hopkins’s most famous poem is a response to traveling cancer specialists like the Pope family, who advertised their cures in newspapers.

A Patient Killed by a Cancer Quack

Here lies a fool, flat on his back,
The victim of a cancer quack,
Who lost his money and his life,
By plaister, caustic and the knife.
The case was this—a pimple rose,
South-east a little of his nose;
Which daily redden’d and grew bigger,
As too much drinking gave it vigor;
A score of gossips soon ensure
Full threescore different modes of cure;
But yet the full-fed pimple still
Defied all petticoated skill;
When fortune led him to peruse
A hand-bill in the weekly news;
Sign’d by six fools of different sorts,
All cured of cancers made of warts;
Who recommend, with due submission,
This cancer-monger as magician;
Fear wing’d his flight to find the quack,
And prove his cancer-curing knack;
But on his way he found another,—
A second advertising brother:
But as much like him as an owl
Is unlike every handsome fowl;
Whose fame had raised as broad a fog,
And of the two the greater hog:
Who used a still more magic plaister,
That sweat forsooth, and cured the faster.
This doctor view’d, with moony eyes
And scowl’d-up face, the pimple’s size;
Then christen’d it in solemn answer,
And cried, “this pimple’s name is cancer.
But courage, friend, I see you’re pale,
My sweating plaisters never fail;
I’ve sweated hundreds out with ease,
With roots as long as maple trees;
And never fail’d in all my trials—
Behold these samples here in vials!
Preserved to show my wondrous merits,
Just as my liver is—in spirits.
For twenty joes the cure is done—”
The bargain struck, the plaister on,
Which gnaw’d the cancer at its leisure,
And pain’d his face above all measure.
But still the pimple spread the faster,
And swell’d, like toad that meets disaster.
Thus foil’d, the doctor gravely swore,
It was a right-rose cancer sore;
Then stuck his probe beneath the beard,
And show’d him where the leaves appear’d;
And raised the patient’s drooping spirits,
By praising up the plaister’s merits.—
Quoth he, “The roots now scarcely stick—
I’ll fetch her out like crab or tick;
And make it rendezvous, next trial,
With six more plagues, in my old vial.”
Then purged him pale with jalap drastic,
And next applied the infernal caustic.
But yet, this semblance bright of hell
Served but to make the patient yell;
And, gnawing on with fiery pace,
Devour’d one broadside of his face—
“Courage, ’tis done,” the doctor cried,
And quick the incision knife applied:
That with three cuts made such a hole,
Out flew the patient’s tortured soul!

Go, readers, gentle, eke and simple,
If you have wart, or corn, or pimple;
To quack infallible apply;
Here’s room enough for you to lie.
His skill triumphant still prevails,
For death’s a cure that never fails.
I’m not sure this poem helped anybody, but writing it probably made Dr. Hopkins feel better.

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