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Plus a medico quam a morbo periculi

Original post date: Friday, April 20, 2007

In English: More danger from the doctor than from the disease.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, multa fercula, multos morbos, "many dishes, many diseases." Today's proverb warns you about the dangers that can arrive after you've gotten sick, when the cure is worth than the disease.

The sound-play in this Latin proverb is very elegant with the proverb framed by the phrase plus...periculi, along with the parallel phrases a medico and a morbo. Although I will not claim that my proposed English translation here is equally as elegant, I was glad about getting the sound-play of "danger...doctor...disease."

Not surprisingly, this proverb makes an appearance in that remarkable book The Anatomy of Melancholy, By "Democritus Junior," the pen-name of Robert Burton, in a chapter devoted to the topic of "Of Physic which cureth with Medicines." Burton is very skeptical of the physician's art, and notes that "many are overthrown by preposterous use of it, and thereby get their bane, that might otherwise have escaped: some think physicians kill as many as they save [...] and according to the Dutch proverb, a new physician must have a new churchyard." He provides a history of medicine going back to the Greeks, and then explains: "The Arabians received it from the Greeks, and so the Latins, adding new precepts and medicines of their own, but so imperfect still, that through ignorance of professors, impostors, mountebanks, empirics, disagreeing of sectaries, (which are as many almost as there be diseases) envy, covetousness, and the like, they do much harm amongst us."

He then cites today's proverb, along with this saying about the death of the emperor Hadrian: multitudo medicorum principem interfecit, "a multitude of doctors killed the commander".

Finally, Burton goes on to compare doctors to butchers: "But it is their ignorance that doth more harm than rashness, their art is wholly conjectural, if it be an art, uncertain, imperfect, and got by killing of men, they are a kind of butchers, leeches, men-slayers; chirurgeons and apothecaries especially, that are indeed the physicians' hangman, carnifices, and common executioners; though to say truth, physicians themselves come not far behind; for according to that facete epigram of Maximilianus Urentius, what's the difference?"

Here is the epigram that Burton cites:

Chirurgicus medico quo differt? scilicet isto,
Enecat hic succis, enecat ille manu:
Carnifice hoc ambo tantum differre videntur,
Tardius hi faciunt, quod facit ille cito.

In English: What is the difference between the surgeon and the doctor? It's obvious: the doctor kills with medicines, while the surgeon kills with his hand; they both seem to differ from the hangman in this way only: these do more slowly what he does quickly.

Robert Burton wrote these bitter reflections on medicine back around 400 years from now, and the malpractice insurance business is still going strong! Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

743. Plus a medico quam a morbo periculi.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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