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The wisdom of Solomons

The dull memoir of the noted early 20th Century physician Dr Bethel Solomons is leavened by some bizarre passages

Despite his many achievements (President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Master of the Rotunda, capped 10 times for Ireland in rugby), I had never heard of Bethel Solomons (1885-1965) until I came across his memoir One Doctor In His Time (1956). The book starts with the obligatory declaration of reluctance, usually intended to deflect any accusations of vanity: “I have written this book at the request of numerous friends.” Solomons’ life was filled with incident and achievement: He was only the third Jew to graduate in medicine from Trinity College Dublin, and the first to specialise; he was a distinguished gynaecologist and medical politician; he was a superb sportsman, excelling in rugby, tennis, golf and riding to hounds; he had friends in all walks of life and was passionate about music and the theatre. He was friendly with James Stephens, George Russell and WB Yeats; he even got a mention in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “In my bethel of Solyman’s I accouched their rotundities.” In 1913, he played the lead role (under the name of ‘Thomas Thornhill’) in Lennox Robinson’s production of Strindberg’s There are Crimes and Crimes at the Abbey Theatre.

In One Doctor In His Time, however, he somehow manages to render this singular life rather dull. There are many passages listing conferences attended, encounters with distinguished fellow gynaecologists, invited lectures given, and so on. This litany of professional achievement is leavened, however, by some truly bizarre passages:

“I became interested in matters psychic and I became acquainted with the Rev Savell Hicks, whom I can now number among my real friends. He is a Unitarian clergyman, a splendid preacher, and is always anxious to help people. He used to assist me with patients who required psychic treatment at a time when little was known about psychiatry.”

Apart at all from the fact that Solomons seems to have confused psychiatry and psychism, what conditions did he use “psychic treatment” for, and how, exactly, did the Rev Savell Hicks “assist”?

My favourite part of this book is a chapter titled ‘Some Professional Problems’. Judging by the surviving photographs of him, Solomons was a striking, good-looking man: The bronze bust by Sir Jacob Epstein (now in the National Gallery of Ireland) confers on him the gravitas and dignity of a Roman emperor. He observed – without a scintilla of false modesty – that “women definitely prefer to have handsome men around them when they are having their babies”. This kind of attention, however, could be risky:

“I always warn young doctors, particularly if they are good-looking, that they cannot be too careful to maintain decorum in their relations with women patients. Women ask the most extraordinary things. On two occasions, at least, I have been asked by women patients, whose husbands were sterile, to oblige them. Needless to say, I refused these open invitations, in the same way as I have refused several insinuated ones.”

Did Solomons, I wonder, give this advice to good-looking doctors only, or did he proffer it also – so as not to hurt their feelings – to his more homely trainees? He gives some practical advice also on collecting fees, noting (with approval) that when the great Sir Thomas Spencer Wells (he of the forceps) operated on his mother, he insisted on being paid 100 guineas before the operation: “There is something to be said for Wells’ procedure. During my time, the number of bad debts was at least 10 per cent of the practice.”

Solomons was horrified by homosexuality. He taught his sons how to box, mainly to protect themselves from the unwanted advances of other boys at boarding school. One of his sons dutifully wrote back: “Dear father, thanks very much for teaching me to box and telling me about boys messing about. I had an experience of this kind with a boy who was two years older. I fought with him and knocked him unconscious.” Solomons was delighted: “I was a very proud father when I got this note and I am glad to say that both sons are now married to delightful girls.”

Like many doctors of his era, Solomons was very relaxed about smoking. He was a member of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland and became friendly with a chimpanzee at Dublin Zoo: “He and I used to walk in the gardens together; he loved smoking but I had to light his cigarette for him.” Asked by an American newspaper reporter whether pregnant women should smoke, Solomons replied: “A few cigarettes will do them no harm.” Nowadays, a doctor who openly expressed homophobic opinions, carried out “psychic treatments” (with or without the assistance of Unitarian clergymen), and encouraged smoking, would be ostracised. But Solomons was a man of his time. No doubt our contemporary pieties will strike future generations as equally absurd.

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