Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

The Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology, vol. 4: Pla [corr.: Ple] - Wri
Todd, Robert Bentley
bers ; and even those persons who are most 
given to express doubts of the necessity or 
expediency of resorting to them, find them¬ 
selves constrained to sanction by their own 
practice what they condemn in theory. This 
is an all-sufficient answer to those who con¬ 
tent themselves with objecting in general 
terms to the employment of numbers in me¬ 
dical investigations. As to more minute and 
detailed objections, these will be found to be 
anticipated and disarmed by the simple con¬ 
sideration that they apply in reality not to 
the use, but to the abuse of numbers. The 
time has long gone by, when the absolute 
dependence of all science on observation and 
experiment could admit of question or dis¬ 
pute ; and, as no one in the present day 
claims for physiology and medicine any im¬ 
munity from the severe conditions which the 
very nature of things imposes, we are spared 
those appeals to authority which might for¬ 
merly have been required at our hands. The 
absolute necessity of observation and experi¬ 
ment towards the improvement of the science 
and art of medicine, in the widest acceptation 
of those terms, may, therefore, be safely taken 
for granted. The only points upon which any 
serious difference of opinion or divergence of 
practice exists, are the degree of care and 
accuracy which should be brought to bear on 
individual observations and experiments, the 
properties which fit single facts to be thrown 
into groups or classes ; the language which 
ought to be employed in expressing the ge¬ 
neral results of such classifications ; and the 
number of facts which, being so grouped or 
classified, may be required to establish a ge¬ 
neral proposition, or to furnish an accurate 
test or trustworthy standard of comparison. 
The human mind is so constituted, that it 
looks forward to an occurrence with a con¬ 
fidence proportioned to the number of times 
that it has been previously known to happen. 
Hence, the universal belief that all living 
beings will die, and that the sun will rise and 
set to-morrow ; hence, the somewhat less 
sanguine expectation that quinine will cure 
ague, and that vaccination will either pre¬ 
vent or modify small-pox ; hence, the little 
hope we have that a severe attack of Asiatic 
cholera will terminate favourably, and our 
absolute despair of the recovery of a patient 
seized with hydrophobia. In these, and other 
analogous cases, we have either the expe¬ 
rience of all mankind in all times and places, 
or that of large numbers of men in addition 
to our own. We do not require that the in¬ 
dividual occurrences which have created our 
confidence, our misgiving, or our despair, 
should be committed to paper, arranged in 
columns, and embodied in sums or averages. 
For practical purposes we are satisfied with 
our own impressions. But should a doubt be 
expressed, and supported by a show of reason 
or experience, whether vaccination possess 
the virtue generally attributed to it ; should 
some new preventive measure or mode of 
treatment be recommended in cholera, as su¬ 
perior to other plans previously adopted ; we 
ask for the specific facts which have seemed 
to warrant the doubts of the one party, and 
the recommendation of the other. If these 
facts are few, we naturally view them with 
mistrust, and are disposed to attribute them, 
at the best, to some coincidence ; or if, being 
more in number, their actual amount is stated 
in vague and general terms, we as naturally 
demand the precise figures. We feel instinc¬ 
tively, that common and familiar words are 
altogether wanting in precision ; that they 
take their meaning from the character of 
those who use them ; that, in a word, “ the 
sometimes of the cautious is the often of the 
sanguine, the alivays of the empiric, and the 
never of the sceptic ; while the numbers, 
1, 10, 100, 1000, have but one meaning for 
all mankind.” 
But this mistrust of vague generalities of 
expression, is not the only form in which the 
more cautious and logical spirit of modern 
times embodies itself. The same misgivings 
are felt and expressed as to the propriety of 
committing the facts which are to serve as the 
materials of our theories to the uncertain keep¬ 
ing of the memory. We feel that a science 
built up of such materials, bears to true science 
the same sort of relation which tradition bears 
to historjr. It may not be destitute of valu¬ 
able truths and sound principles, but it must 
fail in that precision and delicacy of discrimi¬ 
nation which forms the peculiar attribute of 
true science as of true history. The history 
of medicine abounds with examples of impor¬ 
tant principles of treatment, and valuable re¬ 
medies discovered solely by the light of 
experience, based upon the mere recollection 
of a number of individual occurrences. In 
this way the efficacy of bark and arsenic in 
ague, of mercury in syphilis, and of iodide of 
potassium in certain forms of secondary disease 
was discovered. Indeed, it may be confidently 
affirmed that all our knowledge of remedies is 
traceable to this source ; and it is probable 
that we shall continue to be indebted to it for 
all future discoveries of importance. It is the 
natural method of discovery, and, as such, will 
necessarily maintain its ground. But a very 
little reflection will convince us of the utter 
inadequacy of this method to meet the strict 
requirements of the science, and the ever-vary¬ 
ing exigencies of the art of medicine. We 
may be able by its aid to sketch the broad out¬ 
lines, and mark the salient points of a science, 
but we cannot hope to fill in the details with 
all the lights and shadows which go to make 
up the perfect landscape. Still less can we 
satisfy ourselves or others as to the real merits 
of disputed questions by an appeal to un¬ 
written or loosely recorded experience. We 
all feel that there is no solution for our doubts 
short of an appeal to observations carefully 
and faithfully recorded, and summed up in the 
clear and simple language of figures. The use 
of mercury in syphilis, supplies us with an apt 
illustration of this truth. An experience, 
founded upon unrecorded and unnumbered 
occurrences, first recommended this remedy 
for the treatment of that disease ; but it would


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