Medicine Wasn’t Always a Money-Making Profession

In another time, medicine was noble pursuit for the good of all, and the idea of becoming rich from it seemed ludicrous.


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In 2014, U.S. healthcare spending amounted to 17.5% of the gross domestic product; that translates to $9,523 per person, and it’s only going up. With healthcare sucking up more of our money, reports about Big Pharma CEOs with eight-figure salaries, and lowlifes like Martin Shkreli jacking up the price of medicines to nab an even bigger piece of the pie, it’s no wonder that speculation about the future of medicine is more often met with cynicism than with hope.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Once, medical professions were considered noble callings, undertaken for the good of all. The idea of medicine as a money-making profession was ludicrous. In the following address before the New York State Medical Society in 1849, as recorded in the Post on March 24 of that year, Dr. Alexander Stevens claims that “one-third or more of the whole practice of medical men in New York is done without remuneration.”

We certainly don’t wish to deprive physicians and medical researchers of their livelihoods, but reflecting on the passion, integrity, and philanthropy on which the medical industry in America was founded can only do us good.

Disinterestedness of the Medical Profession

From Dr. Stevens’ address before the New York State Medical Society, February 6, 1849

We claim to constitute, or represent a liberal profession; and the very idea or essence of a liberal profession, as distinguished from a trade, is that the acquisition of money is not its primary object. Nor is it so with physicians.

Was the introduction of inoculation for the smallpox a speculation? Was the discovery of the preventive power of vaccination (the labor of close, unremitting, and careful research during a period of several years) made, or conducted with a view to personal emolument? As a matter of course, Dr. Jenner, as soon as he had completed his discovery, published it — made it free to all mankind.

When quinine was first discovered, the mode of preparing it was immediately made known. Recently when some feeble attempts were stated to have been made to obtain a patent for the use of ether, or to conceal the process of etherization, the indignation of the profession was aroused from one end of our country to the other. The money changers were driven from the temple of Humanity.

Medicine a money-making profession! Why one-third or more of the whole practice of medical men in the city of New York is done without remuneration. The hospitals, the almshouses, the dispensaries, the medical and surgical cliniques, the eye infirmary, the orphan and lying-in asylums, the colored home, the institutions for the blind; in fine, all institutions of a charitable kind, so far as I know, are attended gratuitously; and many of them by some of the oldest and most eminent medical men. Nor are the outdoor poor neglected. When they appeal to physicians, not for advice only, but even for services which keep us from our beds, they rarely ask in vain.

I have witnessed examples of self-denial, of steady holding fast on integrity, by scores of medical men; who, amid the pinchings of poverty, have refused to embark in schemes which would have given them wealth, had they chosen to seek it in the walks of quackery. When will the world do justice to such self-denying philanthropy?

A money-making profession! Why the number of destitute widows and orphans of medical men became so great that a few years since, an association was formed, and is now in progress and successful operation, with a fund raised by their own contributions in New York, to secure from destitution after their death, their wives and children. It would have broken our hearts to have encountered them in our daily visits to the almshouses or asylums.

History does not offer a single instance in which a physician has conspired against the welfare of his patient. The successful exercise of the art brings with it joys that make humanity not an instinct merely, but a ruling passion.

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