MEDICAL WIT & WISDOM - From Hippocrates to Groucho Marx Compiled by Jess M Brallier. Running Press, Philadelphia, 286 pp

Brallier has compiled a book of humorous medical aphorisms giving credit to each witticism he quotes. He feels it is not surprising that so much of the world's most inspiring wisdom and enduring wit are rooted in medicine. Medicine addresses the extremes of the human condition--pain and comfort, loss and acceptance, tragedy and recovery, birth and death. He quotes T S Elliot: "Birth, and copulation, and death. That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks."

Unlike the mechanic, bricklayer, or accountant, the medical practitioner has made it his or her life work to interact intimately with people who are at their most vulnerable state. No wonder medical practitioners observe life with such extraordinary clarity. But the view from surgeon's mask or the clinician at the bedside is decidedly different than the view from the operating table, gurney, or the hospital bed. Brallier then gives us the view from patients and other observers of the medical interface. Take Joan Rivers: "I have so little sex appeal that my gynecologist calls me 'sir.'"

Although medicine changes, in Brallier's view, the relationship between doctors and patients really hasn't. He feels his quotes whether they're about obstetrics, dermatology, or dentistry, or whether they originated in ancient Greece or in Montana last week, are equally apt. For more than 2,000 years a tenuous love-hate theme has permeated the healer-patient relationship and at times has involved other professions. In Medical versus Theological prognosis he tells us about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the writer and physician, who arrived at the house of a poor patient one morning to find the priest about to depart. "Your patient is very ill," said the priest solemnly, "he is going to die." Holmes nodded, "Yes, and he's going to hell." The priest was horrified, "I have just given him extreme unction! You must not say such things!" Holmes shrugged his shoulders, "Well, you expressed a medical opinion and I have just as much right to a theological opinion." Brallier also gives us many medical truths. "Did you know that an ulcer is the hole in a man's stomach through which he crawls to escape from his wife?" Or "Quit worrying about your health. It'll go away." Or Jack Benny: "I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either."

There's a good sequence on aging. Robert Benchley: "As for me, except for an occasional heart attack, I feel as young as I ever did." Victor Hugo: "The misery of a child is interesting to a mother, the misery of a young man is interesting to a young woman, the misery of an old man is interesting to nobody." Montaigne: "Old age puts more wrinkles in our minds than on our faces."

Or about wisdom itself. It is extremely difficult for a physician who puts too much trust in what he reads to form a proper decision from what he sees. . .Physicians are judged by the three As: Ability, Availability and Affability. . . "He would have been known to the world as a Patriot, had he not been known as something greater--a Physician" (Inscription on statue of W E B Davis) I prefer to have my reward in the gratitude of my patients. . . It is as much the business of a physician to alleviate pain, and to smooth the avenues to death, when unavoidable, as to cure diseases. . . Every physician must be rich in knowledge, and not only of that which is written in books; his patients should be his book, they will never mislead him. . . "It is our duty to remember at all times and anew that medicine is not only a science, but also the art of letting our own individuality interact with the individuality of the patient." (Albert Schweitzer)

And as we regain our perspective during the summer lull I hope we remember James Bryce: "Medicine, the only profession that labours incessantly to destroy the reason for its existence." Let's not forget that even though no one understands or believes that.

Del Meyer, MD