The Mysteries of Dr. James Barry and the Life-and-Death Surgery Women are Refusing

by Godfrey Onime

Life and death surgery

Short and snappy, the smooth-faced lieutenant-colonel who had been appointed deputy inspector-general of hospitals for the British army would butt heads with non-other than the chaste, indefatigable Florence Nightingale. A heroine of Victorian England who was celebrated as the pioneer of nursing during the Crimean War, Nightingale wrote to her sister about their clash, “He behaved like a brute… the most hardened creature I have ever met.”

His name was Dr. James Miranda Barry.  Obsessed with hygiene, when inspecting his troops he would bark, “Dirty beasts! Go and clean yourselves!” The standards of even ‘the lady of the lamp’ Nightingale were not high enough for Dr. Barry, and I can just imagine the  differential Nightingale trying not to show her fuming as the doctor berated her in front of her subordinates. Unlikely as it may seem, this short-tempered “brute” turned out to be the champion of women, or more specifically, of pregnant woman – a reason that became more understandable only after his death. Read more »

The Never-ending Twists about ‘The French Disease’

by Godfrey Onime

French disease stroke apoplexy
French disease stroke apoplexy

I am reminded of an observation made by an African comedian at a wedding reception I once attended in Atlanta. He quipped that the English language tends to identify even the most hideous diseases by the most beautiful names. Names so lyrical, so poetic, so sensuous you almost wish to contract the disease. He rattled off some examples: Hepatitis. Cholecystitis. Syphilis. Cancer. “How beautiful!” he exclaimed.

The jokester contrasted this proclivity with some gruesome names Africans assign to even the most benign conditions, such as with the Yorubas of Nigeria — Lapalapa (for dermatitis); or  jedijedi (for diarrhea). The comedian may romanticize the English names for diseases, but not so with most of my patients. Especially not so with the middle-aged woman whom I diagnosed with syphilis a few years back. “You mean my nose could fall off?” seemed to be her biggest fear, explaining that she once heard that syphilis could destroy the “snout,” as she put it.

I scrutinized the woman, taking in her straight nose and high cheekbones. Giggling, I said, “Maybe you get to go back in time and join the ‘No Nose Club’. Perhaps you could find out who Mr. Crumpton really was.”

“Mr. who?”


Beautiful or not, it turns out that the origin of the name for syphilis, ironically, came from a poem, written by Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician, scholar and poet. The poem, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (translated to Syphilis or The French Disease), tells the story of a shepherd boy named Syphilis who angered the Greek god Apollo and was given the disease bearing his name as punishment. Although the affliction was more colloquially called “The Pox,” the term syphilis stuck as the proper name. Read more »

Why Most Doctors Don’t Wash Their Hands

by Godfrey Onime

Image of handwashing

At the hospital a couple of years ago, a nurse walked up to me to report that one of my patients was “hysterical.”

“She says to make sure Dr. X never returns to her room,” the nurse explained. I was the patient’s internist and Dr. X the surgeon who had operated on her. Apparently, the surgeon had not washed his hands — before and after touching the dressing on her wound.

I braced myself as I went to see the patient in hopes of placating her. I knew it can be difficult persuading another surgeon to take over the case of a patient they had not operated on, as they may think such patient was a troublemaker.

The patient was laying in bed and talking angrily on the phone. I had seen her the previous day, before her surgery, but not yet on that morning.  In her early 70s, she looked younger and fit. I introduced myself again, more out of habit than her not remembering who I was. I asked what the matter was, and she recounted essentially what the nurse had said.

“I kept watching him and flinching as he examined me and then lifted the bloody dressing on my wound to take a look.  I wanted so bad to say something, but I was afraid he might get mad and do something crazy to me, like purposely infecting my wound. Now that I think about it, I should have told him right to his face.”

Wanting to give the surgeon the benefit of the doubt, I reasoned, “Could he have used the disinfectant hand-rub solution outside the room?” Read more »