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Parkinson of the disease

The hospital pupil

Title page of The hospital pupilTitle page of The hospital pupilThe hospital pupil deals with the education of medical practitioners at the beginning of the 19th century, and a related and even more vexatious question, namely, whether any branch of medicine could call itself a profession.In the period of intense agitation and discussion before the Apothecaries Act of 1815, and in its immediate aftermath, these questions were exercising the minds of surgeon-apothecaries.

These were, roughly speaking, the 18th and 19th century precursors of the general practitioner, and much more numerous than physicians and specialist surgeons. Although the Apothecaries Act had stipulated that those who wished to call themselves apothecaries and surgeon-apothecaries had to pass an examination, it retained several years’ apprenticeship as the only mode of entry to this occupation, and failed to prevent unqualified practitioners from threatening the status and livelihoods of apothecaries.

Parkinson was a founding member of the Association of Apothecaries and Surgeon-Apothecaries, whose limited objectives must account, in large part, for the failure of the Apothecaries Act to protect qualified practitioners.  However, as this tract reveals, Parkinson offered a much more fundamental critique of the medical profession than would have occurred to most of his colleagues.

The epistolary form of this essay (a genre common in 18th century literature) and the informal and conversational style in which it is couched, convey Parkinson’s polemical intention in a manner which would have been palatable to his readers. Other contemporary commentaries on the education of surgeon-apothecaries, notably James Lucas’s A candid enquiry (1800) and William Chamberlaine’s Tirocinium medicum (1812), focus on the moral failings of apprentices and their need for harsh discipline. 

Parkinson, however, reflected on the shortcomings of the apprenticeship system, supplemented thereafter by attendance at lectures and walking the wards of hospitals, in providing a broad-based scientific education. The several years’ apprenticeship were often wasted in drudgery, as too many apprentices were regarded as a source of cheap labour. The time which a student spent learning his craft in a hospital was, Parkinson thought, too short to enable the acquisition of a good scientific background. He was keenly aware that the subordinate social status of apothecaries and surgeon-apothecaries derived, in part, from their deficient education.

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