Professor Huxley on Medical Education

Medical Times and Gazette (June 1871)

[602] Professor Huxley distributed the prizes at the Charing-cross Medical College on Friday last. In his able address after the distribution he touched on some points worthy of especial notice. First, with respect to the recipient of the prizes, and those who unsuccessfully competed for them. Whilst he heartily congratulated those who had been successful on the present occasion, he still more heartily expressed a hope that those who had not attained success might continue in their efforts until they did attain it. But he qualified his approval of the prize system in these very remarkable words:– "The successful men in this world were not those who went off at hard gallop, but, if he might use racing phraseology, those who would 'stay.' It often happened that those whose early career was slower and quieter than that of others, exhibited a greater amount of wind and tougher staying power, and came in at the winning-post at last." Nothing more practical or more applicable to the question at issue was ever uttered. Prizes in schools of Medicine are not to be spoken of lightly. They stimulate the energies of the student, and give him a distinction at the commencement of the race, flattering to himself, and promising future success. But the history of prizemen does not bear out this pleasant theory. On the contrary, like precocious children, prizemen too frequently break down in after life. We do not allude to him who is first in a single class, but to him who is first in all departments. As a rule, he is too heavy-weighted with honours to continue the long race of life which is before him. In fact, he has exhausted his energies before the real race of life has commenced. The career of too many successful prizemen affords a melancholy illustration of this fact. Broken down in constitution, their mental energies exhausted, they are "nowhere" when the real struggle has to be made. Professor Huxley himself, we believe, only obtained a certificate of proficiency in physiology. He urged upon his audience the importance of plodding industry, which was often of more service than brilliancy or talent, and of using their Pegasus as a plough-horse, instead of permitting it to soar aloft. He noticed with great satisfaction the important changes which had taken place in the study of Medicine in late years, but there were still great practical difficulties in the way of obtaining efficient teaching in the theoretical branches of the Profession, such as physiology, chemistry, and anatomy, which were what the Scotch called the "Institutes of Medicine." He [693] suggested that those elements of Medicine should be taught by persons devoting themselves entirely to those subjects, in two or three great centres; and if Hospitals were turned to what he believed was their especial and most important work–the practical teaching of those who were already grounded in theory–the state of Medical education would be far different to what it was now, and the effect of such a change would soon be apparent in its results. These are great words, pregnant with an important truth. There can be no question as to the importance of grounding a candidate for the Medical Profession thoroughly in all that is preliminary to the practical duties of his calling. We would say that that preliminary education should not be carried too far. The great mass of the Practitioners of Medicine have to deal with the treatment and cure of disease. It is not necessary, to do that successfully, that every Surgeon-Physician should be a Huxley in physiology and a Graham in chemistry. The landmarks of the practice of Medicine are clear and defined. The most successful in the past, as they will be in the future, to use the language of Matthew Baillie, "are those who combine a competent knowledge of their Profession with good common sense." With regard to Baillie, an anecdote here may not be without its purpose. Baillie, as plain and common-sense a Practitioner as ever devoted himself to the study and practice of Medicine, once met the classic and accomplished Gregory in Edinburgh. They were not satisfied with each other. Gregory said "Baillie knows nothing but Physic"; Baillie retorted, "Gregory knows everything but Physic." Professor Huxley's recommendations will some day be carried out; at present we are scarcely ready for it. But no one can deny that the multiplicity of subjects to which a student has to attend in his short stay at the Medical schools is bewildering and injurious to him. Professor Huxley alluded with much good taste and feeling to the advantage of the free scholarships connected with the Hospital. He had himself been admitted a free scholar at a time when such a privilege was of great importance to him. On the whole, the free scholarships of Charing-cross Hospital have been a success, and the means of affording assistance to many who have done credit to their alma mater by distinguishing themselves in after life.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University