By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian
In 1884, Dr. Hugo Erichsen (1860-1944) published Medical Rhymes, a collection of rhymes and illustrations from a variety of sources. The subtitle speaks volumes of the books contents: “A collection of rhymes of ye Ancient Time, and Rhymes of the Modern Day ; Rhymes Grave and Rhymes Mirthful ; Rhymes Anatomical, Therapeutical and Surgical, all sorts of Rhymes to Interest, Amuse and Edify all Sorts of Followers of Esculapius.”
Erichsen wrote in his preface that “The purpose of my book is to amuse the busy doctor in leisure hours. Some of the serious poems will no doubt furnish food for reflection.”1 Erichsen, was a busy doctor himself, working as a Detroit physician, a prolific writer, and proponent of cremation.2
In the introduction of Medical Rhymes, Willis P. King, M.D., writes, “There are a thousand and one things in the life of every doctor which are calculated to cause him to ’break out’ with violent attacks of rhyming.”3 Poetry was one area of life where normally stoic doctors could break free of societal expectations.
Erichsen divided his book into seven chapters: Anatomical Lore, For Ye Student Men, The Doctor Himself, Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, and Miscellaneous Poems. All poems are given attribution, where available, and some include illustrations.
This selected poem includes a little anecdote as to its origins:
This next poem is attributed to a London medical student and is quite telling of the time, where K is for kreosote and O is for opium. This one even has a little repeating chorus!
Let’s not forget the book’s compiler. Erichsen included a poem of his own, “The Physician,” in which he pays tribute to all the good a doctor does to “save another life.”
The image below accompanies a 12-page poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D. The poem, “Rip Van Winkle, M.D.,” recounts the story of young Rip as a doctor who took a “vigorous pull” of “Elixir Pro,” then fell off his horse fast asleep. For 30 years he lay, until the sounds of Civil War battle woke him. But his doctoring was no use, as his methods were 30 years out of date. When he consulted with the modern day doctors, they cried murder and suggested he go back to sleep. Today, he can be found by his mildew-y air.
Want more Medical Rhymes? You’re in luck: The book is available in full online.
1. Erichsen, H. Medical Rhymes. St. Louis, MO: J.H. Chambers. 1884.
2. Cree, WJ. In memoriam: Hugo Erichsen M.D. Detroit Medical News. 1944;36(12):9.