Vol 8 #2

Author Information

Alan Eppel MB, FRCPC

When we are faced with threats to our existence we naturally look back to history, to those men and women of courage who had faced and overcome, danger, death and deprivation. Physicians and scientists throughout history have been called upon to show courage and determination in the face of local, national or international catastrophe.

Sherwin Nuland, an American surgeon was considered one of the leading medical writers of his time. In a foreword to an issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, he writes about the need for medical personnel to come to terms with the intense emotions experienced in the healing professions (1):

“Writing gives power to the powerless, and who feels less power than patients and family members do, or medical personnel when their efforts fail, or when they are rejected or undervalued by those meant to be helped? We need to write in order to bring back a semblance of control, to lessen feelings of impotence, and to return to compassion when it has been dispersed by the frustration of defeat or loss of self-esteem. We need to reflect on our deepest values, especially when they are threatened.

Those who heal and those who would be healed–patients, family members, doctors, nurses, medical students, technologists, social workers, everyone–need some way to express what they are feeling. To write about feelings is to bring them forth from some inner place into a form in which they can be seen with perhaps less of the passion of the moment, and with more equanimity. Triumph and tragedy need distance, if their meaning is to become incorporated rated into the wisdom, we hope to gain from the events of our lives….” (1)

Jacob Bronowski was a great scientist, humanist, and gifted intellectual. He produced a magnificent and wide-ranging historical analysis of the evolution of scientific thought in a television series, “The Ascent of Man”.  Bronowski recounted many of the historical dangers that had been overcome by adherents to the values of scientific pursuit (2). He captures the visceral fear we experience when facing existential threats but also the means to progress (2):

“We are all afraid for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do”.


“In every age there is a turning point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world” (2).

Norman Bethune, legendary and iconoclastic Canadian physician, prior to having an experimental lung operation displayed his fearlessness when he declared (3):

“Gentlemen, I welcome the risk”.

He was later to die from sepsis from a cut sustained while performing surgery in China.

Bethune is also remembered for what we might now call “patient centred care” when he said:

“ Let us redefine medical ethics – not as a code of professional etiquette between doctors, but as a code of fundamental morality and justice between medicine and the people” (4).

Another Canadian physician , William Osler, wrote (5):

 “ To have striven, to have made an effort, and have been true to certain ideals – this alone is worth the struggle”.

Jonas Salk virologist and developer of the Salk anti-polio vaccine was faced with the frightful polio epidemic in the United States in 1952. In that outbreak more than 3,000 people died and 21,000 were left with varying degrees of paralysis. He wrote (6)

“I look upon ourselves as partners in all of this, and that each of us contributes and does what he can do best……. And I see every human being as having a purpose, a destiny, if you like – the destiny that exists in each of us …”


Winston Churchill renowned for the courage and hope he inspired by his resolve and his sublime oratory, did not conceal the harsh dangers faced by the allies in World War II when he made his heroic address to the House of Commons (7):

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength  that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”

I will conclude with another example of Sherwin Nuland’s, brilliant philosophy put forth in a TED talk in 2003 (8):

“Do you know what the world will be saved by? I’ll tell you. It’ll be saved by the human spirit. And by the human spirit, I don’t mean anything divine, I don’t mean anything supernatural — certainly not coming from this skeptic. What I mean is this ability that each of us has to be something greater than herself or himself; to arise out of our ordinary selves and achieve something that at the beginning we thought perhaps we were not capable of ”.



  1. Sherwin B. Nuland. Foreword. In Danielle Ofri (Ed.). The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. Bellevue Literary Press; 1 edition, February 1, 2008.
  2. Jacob Bronowski. The Ascent of Man. BBC Books, June 1, 2011.  3
  3. Ted Allan & Sydney Gordon. The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Dr. Norman Bethune. 1952. 4
  4. Roderick Stewart. Bethune 1973. 5.
  5. William Osler. Colombo’s Canadian Quotations. Hertig. Edmonton Alberta. 1974.
  6. Jonas Salk. Quotes.Goodreads.

https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1076784.Jonas_Salk. Accessed April 14, 2020.

7. International Churchill Society. Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat. First Speech as Prime Minister to House of          Commons. May 13, 1940.

https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/blood-toil-tears-and-sweat-2/. Accessed April 14, 2020.

8.Sherwin Nuland. TED2003. The extraordinary power of ordinary people.

https://www.ted.com/talks/sherwin_nuland_the_extraordinary_power_of_ordinary_people?language=en. Accessed Apr 13, 2020.


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