Publication of the week: Dr Nicholas Cambridge

6 April 2015

Nicholas Cambridge, “From the Slaughter House of Blood to Mr Pickwick: Charles Dickens and Medicine”, Hunterian Society Transactions vol. LXI (Session 2012-13) [2014], 13-28

In this article, medical historian and qualified doctor Nicholas Cambridge surveys Dickens’ relationship with medicine in his life and fiction.   The “slaughter house of blood” was the room where his father underwent an emergency operation without anaesthetic.  Mr Pickwick gave his name to a medical condition described in The Pickwick Papers: obesity hypoventilation syndrome, suffered by Mr Wardle’s servant Joe, “a drowsy, fat and red-faced boy”.  Dickens created about fifty characters who were engaged in medicine, such as the meek surgeon Mr Chillip in David Copperfield and the drunken nurse Sarah Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens was able to describe diseases and medical conditions in terms which Dr Cambridge compares to what would be expected from a trained clinician today.  They included strokes, epilepsy and various forms of tuberculosis.  He took a great interest in issues of public health such as water supply and housing of the poor, and many articles appeared in his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. He visited many hospitals himself, and raised funds for, among others, Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College Hospital.

Dickens had a number of health problems of his own, exacerbated by overwork. Dr Cambridge suggests that he could be seen as having obsessive compulsive disorder, in today’s terms, as well as gonorrhoea, gout, a heart arrhythmia and renal colic.  He suffered a mild stroke in 1869, ignored advice to reduce his workload, and died of a severe stroke in 1870.