A medical duel

A duelMedical disputes could be dangerous affairs in the old days. Two hundred years ago two physicians settled their differences not in the pages of the medical journals, but by fighting a duel. This arresting story appeared in a January 1828 edition of The London Medical Gazette:

A Duel was fought last Saturday about three o’clock in the afternoon, between Dr. Forbes, of Argyll-street, and a young surgeon named Thompson. The circumstances which led to this meeting are as follows. Dr. Forbes who, as we stated in our Gazette of December 22nd, is physician to the Westminster Infirmary for diseases of the eye, was subpoenaed by the editor of the Lancet in his recent prosecution for libel. 

This libel action, brought by the eminent surgeon George Guthrie (a veteran of the Peninsular War and a favourite of Wellington) against the editor of The Lancet, was the result of a dispute which had begun some months earlier between Guthrie and his colleague Charles Fergusson Forbes. They disagreed on the correct method of treating eye inflammations; The Lancet took an interest in the dispute and came down on the side of Dr Forbes. Guthrie felt his professional competence had been impugned, and brought legal action against the journal. Then, as now, surgeons did not like having their expertise questioned, particularly in public.

On this, Dr. Forbes wrote to Mr. Guthrie, stating that if he was called into the witness box he would be compelled in truth to give an unfavourable opinion with regard to Mr. Guthrie’s practice. Nevertheless the preparations for the action proceeded; but when the day of trial arrived, and just as the barristers were about to commence the contest, Mr. Guthrie gave up the cause—for the time, if not definitely,—apprehensive, it is said, of the influence of Dr. Forbes’s evidence.

 Hell hath no fury like a surgeon scorned. There were consequences.

 Mr. Thompson meeting Dr. Forbes at the Infirmary, is said to have told him that he had betrayed his friend. Dr. Forbes demanded an apology, which Mr. Thompson refused to make, and nothing remained but to fight. Dr. Forbes chose for his second Dr. Hume, of Curzon-street, a man well suited for the task as he has lived much in the army among high bred and susceptible gentlemen, and knows what is required by the laws of honour too well to allow of any foolish and unnecessary waste of blood.

He sounds ideal. If you are planning to engage in (potentially) mortal combat, it’s surely not a bad idea to have an expensive Mayfair doctor as your second.

Mr. Thompson was attended by Lieut. B. The meeting took place in a solitary part of Clapham Common.

How times have changed. These days a ‘solitary’ part of Clapham Common is one with fewer than five espresso bars within 100 yards. Combatants looking for a quiet spot for a quick duel would be disappointed.

After the first fire, Mr. Thompson still refusing to apologize, the duel was allowed to go on till each party had fired three times, when Dr. Forbes’s third shot having hit his antagonist’s hat, the seconds interfered and put an end to the combat. 

Not exactly a lethal encounter. It is probably for the best that the duellists were evidently more competent with a scalpel than with a firearm. 

We understand that Dr. Forbes finding that, according to general belief, the trial had been put off in consequence of the evidence he was expected to give, wrote to Mr. Guthrie on the subject, who, in his second letter, in reply, declared that Dr. Forbes had done nothing unbecoming a gentleman. If this be correct, we are at a loss to know what Mr. Thompson had to do with the matter; but as a correspondence has taken place, we think that the parties owe it to the profession and to themselves to publish it. 

In other words, the author is as bewildered about these events as the rest of us.

Thus, fortunately, terminated an affair which might have had a fatal issue, and which affords a striking illustration of the tumultuous state of our profession, to which we alluded in our Address. It is one among the daily proofs of the incalculable mischief resulting from that system of depravity in the medical press, which has thus, literally, “set man in hostility to man;”—a system habitually carried on for the profit of a moral incendiary, (observe, we say moral,) who has raised a conflagration which it is to be feared will only be quenched with blood.

A duel is a bit more interesting than a really sarcastic letter to the BMJ, isn’t it?

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