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P McDonald, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, £25.00 (hardback), pp 212. ISBN 0-19-263047-4
There are Oxford dictionaries of practically everything but not until now of medical quotations. The literary minded doctor need no longer be limited to the 15 or so entries in the regular Oxford University Press Dictionary of quotations when searching for something with which to get started a medical thesis, or display learning at lectures to rotaries clubs on the short arm of chromosome 6. Here are corralled all the most apt aphorisms an after dinner medical speaker should want. Or are they?
Peter McDonald has definitely found more statements by and relating to medicine than before. Roughly half is text listed by author to which are appended birth and death dates (where applicable—some aphorists are happily still extant) and a statement of occupation. Roughly half is text indexed as keywords linking quotes on one theme to their various authors and spokespeople. Cross reference would have been easier if the text columns had been numbered or lined—occasionally it takes some searching to find the well-honed chiselled phrase that encapsulates the very essence of bubo, erysipelas, or fistula. Not all quotators are medical men or women. And not all his sources are listed as McDonald assembles this A–Z of quasi-medical sayings. But he has clearly torn many bits out of throwaway journals (Hospital Doctor and the Canadian Medical Association Journal seem to have commissioned more wise remarks than other contemporary medical magazines) in selecting statements from the very old (Hammurabi, King of Babylon, 1728–1686 BC, on teeth for a tooth) and the quite young (G Spence, orthopaedic surgeon born 1971, on audit). Are any memorable or immediately usable? Not many to my taste. Probably the most memorable and wittier (WC Fields: “after 3 days in hospital, I took a turn for the nurse”; although this is not a book of medical jokes) are the swipes and asides at medicine by outsiders. The themes are familiar—pomposity, fake competence, and a liking for drink and cash. Quotations from the living are in the main rather banal, some laboured, and often obscure to the point of needing to be read twice in order to spot the reason for selection. Too few raise a dutiful smirk or nod of approval for their sagacity. Some of the missing biographical information should have been rather easy to locate. The most quoted people are good old Anon, Hippocrates, Osler, the Mayo brothers (of clinic fame), Shakespeare, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Claude Bernard, Bernard Shaw, and the Bible. As useful is Peter McDonald’s other approach of creating a keyword index from which contributing authors are found by secondary intention. Here the longer entries—death, doctor, disease, health, life et al–are awfully general. Readers may have some difficulty identifying a useful stem linking into a pithy stream of apt quotations on the short arm of chromosome 6.