DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
First published in 1952
'A parcel of lazy, idle fellars, that are always smoking and drinking, and lounging…a parcel of young cutters and carvers of live people's bodies, that disgraces the lodgings.' _Bob Sawyer's landlady in_ PICKWICK PAPERS
St. Swithin's Hospital does not exist; neither do its staff, students, nor patients.
The large and completely unused set of surgical instruments that my father kept in his consulting-room held for the old gentleman the melancholy fascination of a hopefully gathered layette to an ageing childless wife. For twenty years he had not troubled to exercise the self-deception that he might one day come to use them. They lay in the slots of their metal trays, fitting in with each other like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle. There was a sharp-toothed circular trephine for boring holes in the skull; bone forceps like a pair of shiny pliers; a broad hacksaw for amputations; scissors with long, sharp blades; probes, trocars, and bistouries; and a row of scalpels as impotent as a line of ceremonial swords. The instruments were in a heavy black wooden box with his name in copperplate script on its tarnished metal label. He had stowed it away some years ago at the bottom of a tall cupboard in the corner, where it had become silted over with old medical journals, out-of-date diaries, and bright advertisements from the big drug firms that he had slung in there from time to time with the vague belief that he might want to refer to them one day. Occasionally, rummaging his way through the dusty papers, he would uncover the box and light up in himself a momentary glow of frustration: he had once been convinced he was going to be a great surgeon, and the instruments were an expensive gift from his admiring mother the day he qualified as a doctor. My grandparents were, unhappily, the only ones to share his confidence in his professional destination. The first step in becoming a surgeon of even mediocre ability is the acquisition of the Fellowship of the Royal College, an examination he sat regularly twice a year for six years before he faced up to the truth that his ability was not a powerful enough propellant for his ambition. His history after that was the not disagreeable one of a good many other unsuccessful young surgeons: he married and went into general practice, in the provinces. When he saw the brass plate being screwed on to his new doorpost he recognized it as the coffin-lid of his surgical aspirations. For a few months he was bitter at his abandonment of specialization, but his resentment was rapidly smoothed down by the heavy planes of domesticity, busy practice, and the momentous trivia of provincial social life. He became a prosperous, and even fairly efficient, general practitioner, and reflected on his dead ambitions only when he came across his case of instruments or thought seriously about the education of his son. Like most doctors' children, I had from my earliest schooldays come to look upon a medical qualification like a hereditary title. Graduation seemed a future occurrence over which I had no control; indeed, neither my parents nor myself contemplated my earning a living by any other means. My father sometimes wondered timidly if I might fulfil his own surgical hopes, but experience had made him guarded in predicting his son's postgraduate attainments. I had certainly not demonstrated in adolescence any aptitude for my already settled career. Up to the age of six I had a habit of pulling to pieces birds and small mammals ingeniously trapped in the garden, and this was thought by my parents indicative of a natural inclination towards the biological sciences. The practice of medicine was to me no more than a succession of mysterious people coming twice a day through the front door, and the faint tang of antiseptic which had been in my nostrils as long as I could remember,...