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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Mr Belloc has been done a disservice

In my last post (which was actually drafted some time ago), I gave the common attribution for a versicle about Streptococcus to Dr Wallace Wilson.  Just after that, I saw something in the British Columbia Medical Journal which prompted me to write to the author, Kashmira Suraliwalla, seeking clarification, because the attribution has never been tracked down.

To save you digging back, it goes:
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things great and small.
The Streptococcus is the test
I love him least of all.
The first two lines, of course, come from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but the last two lines express the sense of despair that a strep infection caused, back in the days before antibiotics.  It's a despair that will return to haunt us if people keep on misusing antibiotics, and a despair I almost shared a few years back when a routine biopsy gave me bacteremia (or if you're old-fashioned, septicaemia).

In the end, antibiotics saw it off, but it was a near-run thing.  Anyhow, the parody is commonly attributed to Wallace Wilson, who supposedly wrote it in a letter to Dr E. P. Scarlett.

Interestingly, in terms of what has transpired, my searches several years ago, brought to a nasty end by the crash of a hard disc, had pointed to Hilaire Belloc as a possible source.  Now people like me, who hunt down references, learn to distrust certain attributions, in particular, those to Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, and one or two American television comedians of recent vintage, while Belloc also gets his share.

For some reason, popular memory gives these people all sorts of lines.  The result: I had ignored the Belloc line of enquiry.  Silly me!

Dr Suralliwalla passed my email on to Scott Anderson, described as the Library Bookkeeper/Executive Assistant in the College Library of the College of Physicians & Surgeons of British Columbia.  Like me, Scott Anderson is interested in searching out such truths, and he did me proud, as I discovered when I opened my email the next morning.

First, he deduced (correctly) that I own a copy of Alan Lindsay Mackay's Harvest of a Quiet Eye, (look at the intro to my Australian language database and you will see a nod to Mackay there). Mackay's book is a selection of delightful quotes about science, and this, it seems, is the source of the error. He went on: "While I have not located the letter from Dr. Wilson to Dr. Scarlett, I have attached two files that I hope you will agree supports my conclusion."  I do indeed agree!

Item 1 was from the Historical Bulletin (Calgary), 1956, 21(2):64, where Dr Scarlett credited the lines to "the robustious Hilaire Belloc", but at the same time, mentions that it was passed on to him by "Dr, Wallace Wilson of Vancouver who has a fine appreciation of such things".

The second exhibit was an excerpt from an essay in Hilaire Belloc's "Short talks with the dead and others."  This was first published in 1926, though the copy comes from a 1967 reprint. Says Scott Anderson:

The essay discusses a game with the object of "taking famous lines out of the poets, and seeing whether he can improve them by some slight change." The verse in question is used as the final example, and can be inferred to have been a Belloc original.

Finally, he offered me the URL of a 1969 article in Life magazine, which also attributes the verse to Belloc.

Game, set and match to Belloc, I think.  Aside from doing justice to Belloc, a fine man whose Cautionary Tales warped me as a child, and who was a good friend of G. K. Chesterton, there is another notable feature, and again, I shall quote Scott Anderson:

"Thank you for your question, I hope this explanation is satisfactory. While I had previously heard the verse I didn't know its origin, and enjoyed searching it out. A large debt of gratitude goes to Karyn Fritz of the BC Medical Association for finding both the specific book the verse appeared in (Hilaire Belloc has an extensive bibliography), and the Life Magazine article. Her assistance definitely reduced the time required to find the supporting evidence, for which I am most grateful!"

What a wonderful world we live in, where people will take the time to solve such a simple if curious matter for somebody on another continent.  Thanks Kashmira, thanks Scott, thanks Karyn!

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