A Medical Man of Letters

It was a long journey for a little book. To view the only copy in the U.S. of Alexander Wettendorfer’s Causes and Prevention of Consumption of the Lungs: A Popular Treatment for the Educated of All Classes, I traveled back and forth from New York to Washington D.C. in one day. Before noon I was at the Medical Center metro station in Bethesda, Maryland, making my way up an escalator so long and steep it appeared to culminate in the heavens. Not a bad image for a journey to the past. Once at the top, proof of identity was required to enter the grounds of the National Institute of Health, and an application for a library card to work in the National Library of Medicine. But, within the hour, duly labeled and photographed, I had my great-grandfather’s 144-page, 1888 publication before me.

It turned out to be the first volume in an ambitious series on medical science for the layman written by “reliable and capable doctors.” I was delighted to see that the eminent Viennese doctor Johann Schnitzler, the founder and director of Vienna’s Polyclinic and editor of a widely-read medical journal, had written the introduction. Second-hand fame for the father of the playwright only came later. In 1888, the 28-year-old Arthur, also a doctor, was working as an assistant in his father’s clinic and just beginning to publish.

The first part of Dr. Wettendorfers’s little volume summed up Robert Koch’s recent discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus in Berlin, and presented detailed anatomical drawings of the effects of the disease. Most of the text, however, was devoted to the crucial issues of vulnerability and contagion. And here Dr. Wettendorfer revealed himself to be a pragmatist, a visionary, and a wily man of letters. To describe the body’s capacity for resistance he had an apt Shakespeare quote handy –“this fortress built by nature for herself against infection.” No matter that the line came from Richard II and referred to the “sceptered isle’s” geographic advantages.

Since tuberculosis was an opportunistic infection—preying on the unhealthy, proving fatal to the weak—the doctor encouraged his readers to take an active role in their own well-being. There was a contemporary ring to his recommendations of good nutrition and exercise. To help readers along, he offered detailed menus and supplied vivid illustrations of a little man in 19th -century exercise gear demonstrating the correct way to strengthen arms and legs. Women were warned of the dangers of tight corsets. And though Wettendorfer was writing before Freud made his mark, he urged doctors to take their patient’s psyche into account by “encouraging the timid, cheering the melancholy, controlling the frivolous.”

Beyond these suggestions, the author had a wider agenda. Prescriptions for the health of the individual were of of no use without the support of the state. He urged the government to maintain strict standards of hygiene, take up arms against child labor and occupational hazards, combat the high prices for meat and bread, and, in the cause of cleanliness, make sure entrance fees to public baths were affordable. Above all, spacious, and airy living spaces had to be constructed for the lower classes—a vision that did not see reality until the achievements of Red Vienna after World War I.

Dr. Wettendorfer was a lucky man. All guests using Baden’s thermal facilities had to visit a local spa doctor, who, after a check-up, would indicate how much drinking of (or immersion in) the mineral waters was appropriate. Since most of the visitors were either in good health or on the mend, Dr. Wettendorfer’s practice was a cheerful one. The “taking of the waters” took very little time during the day and Baden competed with other spas in offering such diversions as scenic walks in the surrounding countryside, concerts in the spa park, and, above all, opportunities to socialize. An amusing comment on this strange half-convalescent life was made by the 19-year-old Alma Schindler (later Mahler-Werfel) in her diary while on a visit to a spa in 1898. “It’s strange,” she writes, “how everyone here takes pride in his or her physical shortcomings–shows off about them. Everyone walks proudly with their glass [for drinking the mineral water] at their side and is ashamed when they don’t have it with them.”

Over many years, Dr. Wettendorfer sang the praises of the special place he had chosen to live and work in. He extolled the virtues of Baden for the French in his Les eaux minérales de Baden près de Vienne. Guide pratique pour les médecins et pour les malades in 1891, and followed this with five editions of the German version between 1895 and 1912. He was also a regular contributor to the local newspaper on both communal and medical matters. In 1904 one of his pieces was titled“The Kiss from the Standpoint of Hygiene.” Quite a different attitude to kissing could be found in his first book of poetry. It appeared in 1914, three years after his wife’s death.

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1 Response to A Medical Man of Letters

  1. Peter Prokop says:

    Dear Monica,

    feeling more embarrassed than flattered when you promoted me to a “prime rate archivist” (which I am most certainly not), let me still offer a few minor comments to the last continuation of your most intersting blog. Are you sure that Stephan Siemang was born in Schaumburg and not in Prague? His fathers employer, Archduke Stephan Franz Victor resided in Prague as emperor Ferdinand’s personal deputy for the kingdom of Bohemia from 1843 to 1847. He does not seem to have moved his collection to Budapest, where he acted as Palatine – second only to the king – in 1847 and 1848, continuing in the liberal traditions of his father, Archduke Joseph Anton, who had held this high office for many years before him. However, this satisfied neither the hungarian nationalists nor the hardliners in the entourage of the new young emperor Franz Joseph. Stephan resigned his post and went into exile, to the tiny german princedom of Schaumburg – on the Lahn river some 30 miles east of the Rhine – which he had inherited from his mother. In 1850 he entrusted the architect Carl Boos with remodeling the medieval castle into a fancy gothic revival palace, which was not completed until 1857. So it was probably towards the end of this period that Stephan Siemang’s father Georg could move the vast collection into the new premises, where it could be admired by the participants of the 33rd Congress of german natural scientists in 1857.

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