On the medical uses of photography.

Wright, H. G.

Journal : The British journal of photography, vol. xiv.

London : Henry Greenwood, March 29, 1862.

Description : pages 148-149.

Subject : Medical photography.


*Read at a meeting of the London Photographic Society, February 12, 1857.

BY permission of the Council of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society I am enabled to place before you this evening the collection of professional photographs recently commenced as an addition to the fine library of that Society. I purpose making these the pretext for troubling you with a few remarks as to the medical uses of photography.

From the very earliest times medicine has been equally acquisitive and inquisitive, unscrupulously appropriating to its own special purposes every discovery in science and every invention of art. When the great medical school of Alexandria was destroyed, about a thousand years ago, the burnt-out doctors then thrown on the world found among their Arab conquerors a new science so attractive to their professional minds that its pursuit was almost allowed to supplant the study of medicine. This was chemistry, of which the principal early professors were doctors. Its influence extended far into the dark ages of medicine, when the advantages constantly accruing from the study of chemistry led men to regard as legitimate offspring of science those which were only its bastard children. Astrology and the eccentric doctrines about amulets, sympathies, talismans and charms, were of course mere ignes fatui. The blind leading the blind, they both fell into the inevitable ditch ; for the doctor was not much better off than the patient, so far as practical usefulness went, like the much-bothered Pilot of Æneas.

" Ipse diem noctemque negat discernere coelo,
Nec meminisse viam mediā Palinurus in undā."

This was the time of the greatest scientific darkness, when it seemed as though men gave up their reason, their common sense, and their trust in God, to sit at the feet of any unscrupulous impostor who chose to lie largely and call his rubbish science. But it is unsafe for us to cast a stone, lest some offended ghost of that mediæval time rise and ask unpleasant questions about spirit-rapping, table-turning, clairvoyance, the Devonport Brothers, the Agapemone, and the Books of Mormon.

It was the deep darkness before the dawn. With the revival of learning, philosophy was taken off her stilts. Then truths which had long been waiting on the threshold came trooping in ; for truth is always represented as a woman, and therefore requires the door to be opened for her.

"Quae caret ora cruore nostro? "

I remember, many years ago, watching in the bay of Callao how the sea-gulls, in great flocks, would pounce down on shoals of passing fish, each of them diving and remaining under water for an almost incredible time. In this interval there would settle on the surface a number of pelicans, and as each of the poor little gulls came to the surface the knowing old bird would wrest his fish from him, and stow it away in his pouch for future use. During the last two centuries, medical science has seized with similar avidity the results which workers in narrower fields have from time to time added to the stock of knowledge. But if, like the gluttonous old pelican of real life, we have not hesitated to appropriate all that could be turned to account, it may be urged in extenuation that our ultimate purpose was the welfare of mankind ; and that this object has been too often only obtained by a sacrifice similar to that of the fabled pelican giving her life's blood for others.

Thus intent on turning to good purpose every suggestion, discovery, or invention, the eager spirit with which medical men have worked at the elucidation or application of scientific phenomena is, I do not hesitate to say, a special characteristic of the profession. In the fair Temple of the Sciences, the mason's marks on many of the corner stones are those of members of the medical profession ; and if they appropriated with the industrious avidity of the ant, they garnered the spoil for the common good with all the unselfishness of the bee.

Optics have furnished us with the microscope, that great divining-tube which often determines whether the issue of disease will be life or death. Acoustics have taught us the value of the stethoscope ; and the result of its use is, that persons stricken with that terrible disease consumption have the tenure of their lives doubled. The average duration was formerly but two years ; it is now extended to four — to say nothing of the thousands in whom its ingress is warded off by early attention to any deviation from those acoustic effects naturally produced when air enters among the structures which compose the lungs.

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