He Who Acts as His Own Doctor Has a Fool for a Patient

Roger L’Estrange? William Grant? John Bristed? William J. Flagg? William Osler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person with a serious malady should be very cautious about treating himself or herself. This holds true even if the person is a physician. Here are some versions of a pertinent adage:

  • He who treats himself has a fool for a patient.
  • A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.
  • The person who is his own doctor has a simpleton for a patient.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: A precursor appeared in a 1692 collection of fables translated into English by Sir Roger L’Estrange. In one fable a wealthy Dutchman rejects the advice of his physicians. The section containing the moral of the fable presents an adage about teachers which is generalized to apply to doctors. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The MORAL
He that Consults his Physician, and will not Follow his Advice, must be his Own Doctor: But let him take the Old Adage along with him. He that Teaches Himself has a Fool to his Master.

In 1781 a medical book written for doctors by William Grant included a discussion of gout. Grant presented a version of the adage: 2

The last common cause of irregularity in the gout, is a complication with other diseases; of which I have given some examples in the first Chapter of this Essay. These always require the assistance of a skilful person; in such cases no man ought to be his own physician, for fear of having a fool for his patient.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1803 a book about taking a pedestrian tour through the Scottish Highlands employed an instance of the saying within its preface: 3

Besides, it is a well-known fact, that he who prescribes for himself has, generally, a fool for his patient; a man cannot be his own physician; disease, and anxiety, and doubt, and fear so enfeeble his mind and cloud his judgment, that he cannot prescribe, with any tolerable hope of success, for a disorder under which he himself labours.

In 1807 “The Annual Review, and History of Literature” stated that a poet should not publish his or her own works. To emphasize this guidance the author mentioned similar rules for physicians and lawyers: 4

When a physician prescribes for his own malady, and a lawyer pleads his own cause, the one is considered as having a fool for his patient, and the other as having an ass for his client. What is one to say of a man who, in a delirium as wild as if he had taken a draught of oxygen gas, writes mad-cap verses, and afterwards becomes his own publisher!

In 1838 a book review in “The British Critic” contained the sayings about lawyers and physicians: 5

It has been said that he who is his own lawyer, is sure to have a fool for his client; and that he who is his own physician is equally sure to have a fool for his patient.

In 1872 a character in a serialized story by William J. Flagg in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” contended that doing housework for oneself was desirable: 6

As to its being unrefined and unlady-like to help one’s self—and that is about all doing house-work amounts to—it’s nonsense to say so. I have read that whoever is his own lawyer has a fool for a client, and whoever is his own physician has a fool for a patient; but I insist that whoever is his own servant has a wise man for his master.”

In 1874 the London periodical “Notes and Queries” printed a variant with simpleton: 7

If the man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client, it is equally true that, under serious circumstances, the man who is his own doctor has a simpleton for his patient. Even medical men, when they are ill, mistrust themselves, and invariably seek aid from a brother practitioner.

In 1950 the collection “Sir William Osler Aphorisms From His Bedside Teachings And Writings” included the following: 8

A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.

In conclusion, this saying can be expressed in many ways which makes it difficult to trace. A precursor appeared in a 1692 collection of fables. A strong match appeared in a 1781 book for physicians. In 1807 a version appeared that was specialized to physicians. The first part referred to a physician and not an arbitrary man or person.

Image Notes: Eight tiles showing illustrations related to medicine from geralt at Pixabay. Tiles in the original image have been moved, and image has been resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Kate O’Neill, Christopher Burd, Ronan Sharkey, and Robin Colgrove who inquired about another saying attributed to William Osler. This led QI to examine a book of aphorisms attributed to Osler. This saying was included in the book which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

Notes:

  1. 1692, Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists with Morals and Reflecions by Sir Roger L’Estrange, Abstemius’s Fables, Fable CCCXIII, Quote Page 274 and 275, Printed for R. Sare, T. Sawbridge, B. Took, M. Gillyflower, A. & J. Churchil, and J. Hindmarsh, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1781, Some Observations on the Origin and Progress of the Atrabilious Constitution and Gout, Chapter V: Containing the irregular and complicated gout by William Grant M.D., Quote Page 6, Printed for T. Cadell, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1803, Ανθρωπλανομενος: or, a Pedestrian tour through part of the Highlands of Scotland, in 1801 by John Bristed (Hon. Society of the Inner Temple), Volume 1 of 2, Section: Preface, Quote Page xlvi and xlvii, Printed for J. Wallis, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1807, The Annual Review, and History of Literature, Edited by Arthur Aikin, Volume 5, Chapter IX: Poetry, Quote Page 536, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1838 October, The British Critic, (Book Review of “The Life of William Wilberforce” by His Sons), Start Page 239, Quote Page 248, Printed for J. G. & F. Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1872 April, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, A Good Investment by William J. Flagg, Chapter XIV, Start Page 717, Quote Page 719, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1874 June 27, Notes and Queries, Miscellaneous: Notes on Books &c., (Book Review of Haydn’s Dictionary of Popular Medicine and Hygiene), Quote Page 519, Published at The Office of Notes and Queries, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1950 Copyright, Sir William Osler Aphorisms From His Bedside Teachings And Writings, Collected by Robert Bennett Bean M.D., Edited by William Bennett Bean M.D., Section: The Medical Student and The Student Practitioner, Quote Page 49, Henry Schuman Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)