Nothing about the recent terrorist plots gone awry in England and Scotland has surprised -- and saddened -- the public quite like the fact that the villains were doctors. Every society awards special value to those who promise to dedicate their lives to healing others. We think of them as doing God's work. Lawyers (like pundits) have rarely enjoyed such prestige.
Even when healing was based more on unproven ideas than on proven science, we put our trust in the medical men (and before that in medicine men). The sick may be the most vulnerable among us, so it's only natural to place faith, even if based on illusion, in those we believe can soothe our aches and pains. But medicine can never be got on the cheap. The Islamist terrorists could get into the United Kingdom largely because Britain has suffered a drain of native-born doctors. British physicians fled to other countries with greater opportunity; young men and women often turned to other professions with greater promise.
The brain drain began in the 1960s. When I lived in London during that decade I often heard the sneer that "British medicine is the best that Pakistan can provide." That was long before the Islamists of many trades and professions were recruited to kill infidels. White coats can suggest good works, and a stethoscope around the neck can tune in to beating hearts, but it can't reveal what's in the secret places of the heart of the doctor.
The history of medicine is rife with villains who signed up to do the devil's work. It's only human to weave myths around particular professions, and medicine has been protected by the mythology that suggests that doctors are noble as a group even when the evidence points otherwise.
In "Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours," Noga Arikha documents the false theories that dominated medicine for more than 2,000 years, false theories sometimes surviving long after gross errors and miscalculations were exposed. This was a mixture of arrogance and tenacity in the face of falsehood, a failure to let ethical behavior be the guide.
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