Doctor Franklin's Medicine. Stanley Finger. xiv + 379 pp.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. $39.95.
Few personalities swept a more luminous arc through 18th-century
America than did Benjamin Franklin. An autodidact, polymath, patriot
and successful businessman, he was wealthy enough at the age of 42
to retire from commerce and devote the rest of life to philanthropy,
diplomacy and science. Among many achievements, he may have been the
first to have the powerful insight that the various manifestations
of electricity are a single phenomenon best understood as a kind of fluid.
Franklin's celebrity was due to his formidable intelligence,
unparalleled energy and admirable assiduity, and also to
circumstance: He owned a printing press, and his literary alter ego,
Poor Richard, had something to say about almost everything of
interest to a broad, Colonial audience.
Franklin also actively sought fame, and some of his renown was
self-created: He dissimulated humility while inwardly belittling it.
"I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of
this Virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of
it," he wrote candidly in his Autobiography. He
smoothly ingratiated himself with many of the best thinkers and
doers of his time, without seeming to try, but trying all the while,
especially in his younger years. To gain the attention or favor of
someone important, he suggested, one should ask to borrow a book
from that person's library—a marvelously disingenuous method
of flattering even the most wary. He also counseled that older
mistresses are to be preferred because they are so much more grateful.
In short, Franklin's oversized personality was ambiguous and complex.
In Doctor Franklin's Medicine, eminent neuroscientist and
medical historian Stanley Finger admirably lays out Franklin's
association with the medical advances of his time. The book's
introduction opens with an account of an event that is almost
cinematic—the uncloaking of Mesmerism. In what was presumably
the first use of the blind protocol in modern times, Franklin and a
committee of other notables conducted a test of Franz Anton Mesmer's
theory that an invisible fluid, animal magnetism, permeated
the universe and could be directed into objects, which could then be
used to cure illness. A blindfolded boy, asked to identify which of
several trees had been "magnetized" by one of Mesmer's
followers, was unable to do so correctly.
The remainder of the book is organized chronologically and by
scientific discipline. Finger describes Franklin's contributions to
the emerging recognition of the health benefits of exercise and
fresh air, the promotion of inoculation against smallpox, the
establishment in America of the first hospital and then the first
medical school, the formation of scientific and medical societies,
the understanding of airborne contagion and lead poisoning, the
resolution of the struggle between theorists and pragmatists in
medicine, and advocacy for the therapeutic role of music. The last
chapters deal with Franklin's more intimate connection to medical
conditions from which he personally suffered: presbyopia, gout, a
chronic skin disease (presumably psoriasis) and bladder stones. We
see Franklin develop through his own experience a sobering
appreciation of the limits of medicine.
As Finger conducts this fascinating tour of medical history, he
enlivens the narrative with information that is often useful and
always interesting. What does the word "inoculation" have
to do with the eye? What is "small" about smallpox? Why is
gout so named? Numerous other fascinating anecdotes and little
histories demonstrate a broad scholarship and an eclectic passion
for knowledge. The book's extensive endnotes facilitate entry into
both the primary literature of Franklin studies and the intellectual
history of his time.
Doctor Franklin's Medicine is a valuable and entertaining
work. However, Finger wisely concedes in his preface that this is
not a definitive book on Franklin's contributions to medicine; he
hopes others will undertake that project. I hope so too.
Franklin's dazzling career has led to the creation of an apparently
solid edifice, which no doubt conceals some element of myth, and my
only quibble with the book's assessment of Franklin's contributions
to medicine is that it may not be critical enough. Finger does not
dwell on the complexity of his subject's character and generally
takes the Franklin mythology at face value. For example, did
Franklin independently invent (or reinvent) the blind protocol that
is so important to modern scientific method? Or was the protocol the
contribution of Antoine Lavoisier, the even more brilliant father of
modern chemistry, who served with Franklin on the committee that
helped to debunk Mesmerism? The latter may be true, but as Finger
points out, Franklin's signature appears above those of his
colleagues on the final report. One would have to dig deep to find
Franklin the scientist deserves further scholarly scrutiny, not to
diminish him but to reveal the man as he was. Within the past decade
or so, a number of authors have begun to demythologize that other
meteor of the 18th-century American firmament, Thomas Jefferson. I
hope someone will follow Finger's advice and untangle the multiple
strands of Franklin's contributions to the development of scientific
medicine. Was he an innovator or a popularizer? A scientist or a
gifted enthusiast? I expect he was some of each.
Franklin's brilliance is unquestioned, but how much of it is