From “Victim to One Hundred and Seven Fatal Maladies.” Jerome left school at the age of fourteen, working as a railway clerk and then an actor before transcribing his experiences as the latter for his first book, On the Stage—and Off. A novelist and playwright, Jerome also edited two humorous journals in which he published works by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
It was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.
It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book and read all I came to read, and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves and began to study indolently diseases in general. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.
I sat for a while frozen with horror, and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever—read the symptoms—discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it—wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’ Dance—found, as I expected, that I had that too—began to get interested in my case and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically—read up ague and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.
I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish—and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.
Hand with boils, from An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, by Edward Jenner, 1798. The Wellcome Library, London.
I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals” if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and after that, take their diploma.
Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it 147 to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.
I had walked into that reading room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.
I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather—all for nothing when I fancy I’m ill—so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said, “Well, what’s the matter with you?”
I said, “I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is not the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee I cannot tell you, but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I have got.”
And I told him how I came to discover it all.
Then he opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn’t expecting it—a cowardly thing to do, I call it—and immediately afterward butted me with the side of his head. After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.
I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back.
He said he didn’t keep it.
I said, “You are a chemist?”
He said, “I am a chemist. If I was a cooperative store and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.”
I read the prescription. It ran:
1 lb. beefsteak, with
1 pt. bitter beer every six hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at eleven sharp every night.
And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.
I followed the directions, with the happy result—speaking for myself—that my life was preserved, and is still going on.