Monday, May 09, 2005

Berkeley Against Big Pharma

It's been a while since I've done any posts related to the Berkeleyan theme of my weblog title. Berkeley's philosophical work Siris is part of a number of works Berkeley wrote to advocate the use of tar-water as a universal medicine; it discusses other philosophical topics, but starts from tar-water. One of the reasons tar-water interested Berkeley so much is that he was a man deeply concerned with the plight of the poor -- you will be hardpressed to find any major philosopher who devoted even half as much time, money, and effort as Berkeley did to improving the lives of the poor. And a major issue for the poor in the eighteenth century was medical attention. Doctors, by and large, tended those who were able to pay their (rather hefty) fees. Medicines by professional apothecaries were extremely expensive. Most people who were poor had no choice when they were sick but to go to the local midwife for a folk remedy, or to someone who had book-learning, like the local bishop, in the hope that they might know something helpful. What excited Berkeley about tar-water was that it was very cheap, fairly easy to make, and (according to him) worked very well if made properly. It seemed to him to provide a way to improve the health options of the poor. Needless to say, professional apothecaries attacked him for his advocacy of tar-water. He wrote the following poem in response, which satirizes them as trying to protect their incomes at any cost:

On Siris and Its Enemies

How can devoted Siris stand
Such dire attacks? The licens’d band
With upcast eyes and visage sad
Proclaim, ‘Alas! the world’s run mad.
The prelate’s book has turned their brains,
To set them right will cost us pains.
His drug too makes our patients sick;
And this doth vex us to the quick.’
And vexed they must be, to be sure,
To find tar-water cannot cure,
But makes men sicker still and sicker,
And fees come thicker still and thicker.

Bursting with pity for mankind,
But to their own advantage blind,
Many a wight, with face of fun’ral,
From mortar, still, and urinal,
Hastes to throw in his scurvy mite
Of spleen, of dulness, and of spite,
To furnish the revolving moons
With pamphlets, epigrams, lampoons,
Against tar-water. You’d know why?
Think who they are, you’ll soon descry
What means each angry doleful ditty,
Whether themselves or us they pity.


Not Berkeley's best poetry, by any means; but one gets a bit of a feel for why Jonathan Swift liked him so much (they were close friends).

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