Mrs. Dollop and the Death Panels

Doubtless, George Eliot would have a lot of catching up to do if she time-traveled to the early 21st-century United States, but "Middlemarch" suggests she'd grasp our health care debate, and its various distortions, almost instantly. In her fictional 1830s landscape, as now, there's hardly anything more threatening than a clever, good-looking young upstart who arrives on the scene and immediately starts fiddling with people's health care in the name of reform.

In "Middlemarch," the upstart is Tertius Lydgate, the head of the town's new hospital. With his foreign ideas about how medicine ought to be practiced (e.g., doctors steering clear of blatant conflicts of financial interest) and his determination to further the field with his own research, it's no wonder a segment of the population is certain he's out to kill them. That is precisely "the trenchant assertion of Mrs. Dollop, the landlady of the Tankard in Slaughter Lane."

Mrs. Dollop became more and more convinced by her own asseveration, that Doctor Lydgate meant to let the people die in the Hospital, if not to poison them, for the sake of cutting them up without saying by your leave or with your leave; for it was a known "fac" that he had wanted to cut up Mrs. Goby, as respectable a woman as any in Parley Street, who had money in trust before her marriage -- a poor tale for a doctor, who if he was good for anything should know what was the matter with you before you died, and not want to pry into your inside after you were gone. If that was not reason, Mrs. Dollop wished to know what was; but there was a prevalent feeling in her audience that her opinion was a bulwark, and that if it were overthrown there would be no limits to the cutting-up of bodies, as had been well seen in Burke and Hare with their pitch-plaisters -- such a hanging business as that was not wanted in Middlemarch!

As a note in the Modern Library edition of "Middlemarch" explains, William Burke and William Hare were "infamous criminals who murdered in order to sell the bodies for medical research. Burke was hanged for the crime, while Hare turned Crown witness."
September 1, 2009 12:57 PM |


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