Quote Origin: Doctors Are Paid To Talk Nonsense With the Patient Until Nature Heals Or the Remedies Kill

Voltaire? Molière? Jean Scholastique Pitton? Nicolas Frémont d’Ablancourt? Pierre Ortigue de Vaumorière? Benjamin Franklin? Laurence Sterne? Samuel Johnson? Ben Jonson? Anonymous?

Rod of Asclepius – medical symbol

Question for Quote Investigator: A family of sayings presents a humorously cynical viewpoint about medicine. Here are four examples:

(1) Physicians sit by your bedside till they kill you, or nature cures you.

(2) A physician picks our pockets by talking unintelligible stuff in a sick man’s chamber, till nature cures or medicines kill him.

(3) Doctors are paid for talking jargon to their patients, till either nature cures, or their medicines kill ’em.

(4) The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.

The famous French philosopher and satirist Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) has received credit for this expression. Also, the prominent French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) has received credit. However, I am skeptical because I have not seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1678 book “Les Eaux Chaudes de La Ville D’Aix” (“The Hot Waters of the City of Aix”) by French writer and historian Jean Scholastique Pitton. The character Eraste stated that medicine was a strange profession. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

… où l’on êtourdissoit souvent un pauvre malade de raisons frivoles de son mal, & d’un flus de paroles, mêlées avec des termes qui dans le fond ne signifient rien, pour l’amuser par l’usage de certains remedes bons ou mauvais en attendant que la nature le tue ou le guerisse.

Below is one possible translation:

… where a poor patient was often dazed with frivolous reasons for his ailment, & a flurry of words, mixed with terms that basically meant nothing, to amuse him by the use of certain good or bad remedies while waiting for nature to kill or cure him.

Thus, Pitton helped to popularize the expression, but he did not take credit for it.

Molière died in 1673, and he tentatively received credit by 1705. QI believes that that current evidence connecting Molière to the saying is weak.

Voltaire was born in 1694 and died in 1778. Hence, the saying was circulating before his birth. The saying is not listed in the helpful reference “The Quotable Voltaire” edited by Garry Apgar and Edward M. Langille.2 Voltaire was given credit in 1842 which is quite late. QI believes Voltaire did not create this quip, and there is no substantive evidence that he employed it.

The irregular spelling in the French excerpts in this article are based on the original texts. Links in the bibliographic notes lead to scans of the texts. Please notify QI of typos. Passages in French are followed by English translations.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1640 the compilation “Outlandish Proverbs” by the English poet George Herbert appeared, and it contained a thematically pertinent adage:3

Original spelling: God heales, and the Physitian hath the thankes.
Modern spelling: God heals and the physician hath the thanks.

In 1678 the saying appeared in “Les Eaux Chaudes de La Ville D’Aix” as previously mentioned.

In 1683 an instance appeared in the book “Dialogues de la Santé” (“Health Dialogues”). The creator of this work was initially anonymous, but scholars have assigned authorship to diplomat and writer Nicolas Frémont d’Ablancourt. During the eleventh dialog within the book, a patient presented the following harsh assessment of doctors:4

Ce sont des gens payez, pour entretenir de fariboles, le Malade qui les appelle, jusqu’à ce que la Nature le guerisse, ou que les Remedes le tuënt.

These are people who are paid to talk nonsense with the Sick person who calls them, until Nature heals him, or the Remedies kill him.

In 1695 a match appeared in the book “Lettres Sur Toutes Sortes De Sujets, Avec Des Avis Sur La Maniere De Les Écrire” (“Letters On All Kinds Of Subjects, With Opinions On How To Write Them”) by Pierre Ortigue de Vaumorière who imprecisely pointed to an earlier work as the origin of the saying. Vaumorière did not give the title, but he was probably referring to “Dialogues de la Santé”:5

Je ne sai si vous avez vû un Dialogue de la Nature & d’un Medecin que l’on a imprimé depuis peu. Voici une plaisante définition que j’y ai remarquée. Un Medecin est un homme qui se fait payer pour aller conter des fariboles dans la chambre d’un malade, jusques à ce que la nature l’ait gueri, ou que les remedes l’ayent tué.

I don’t know if you have seen a Dialogue of Nature and a Doctor that was printed recently. Here is a pleasant definition that I noticed there. A Doctor is a man who gets paid to go and speak nonsense in the room of a sick person, until nature has cured him, or until remedies have killed him.

In 1688 French scholar and lexicographer Antoine Furetière died. In 1696 the book “Furetieriana: Ou Les Bons Mots, et Les Remarques”  (“Furetieriana: Or Good Words, and Remarks”) was published posthumously, and the saying was included without attribution:6

Un Medecin est un homme que l’on paie pour conter des fariboles dans la chambre d’un malade, jusqu’a ce que la nature l’ait gueri, ou que les remedes l’aient tué.

A doctor is a man who is paid to talk nonsense in a patient’s room, until nature has cured him, or the remedies have killed him.

In 1701 the second edition of “Dictionnaire Universel: Contenant generalement tous les Mots François” (“Universal Dictionary: Generally containing all the French Words”) appeared with Antoine Furetière as the editor. The entry for “Medecin” (“Doctor”) included the humorous saying:7

Un Satirique demandant la definition d’un Medecin, & se repondant à lui-même, dit, un Medecin est une sorte d’homme, payé pour dire des fariboles dans une chambre auprès d’un malade, jusqu’à ce que la nature l’ait gueri, ou que les remedes l’ayent fait crever. LA BR.

A satirist asking the definition of a Doctor, and answering himself said, a Doctor is a kind of man, paid to talk nonsense in a room with a patient until nature cures him, or the remedies cause him to die. BR.

In 1705 “La Vie De M. De Moliere” (“The Life of Molière”) appeared, and the saying was tentatively credited to Molière; however, the author immediately mentioned that this attribution was contested:8

On m’a assûré que Moliére définissoit un Médecin. Un homme que l’on paye pour conter des fariboles dans la chambre d’un malade, jusqu’à ce que la nature l’ait gueri, ou que les remédes l’ayant tué. Cependant un Médecin du tems, & de la connoissance de Moliére, veut lui ôter l’honneur de cette heureuse définition, & il m’a assûré qu’il en étoit l’Auteur. 

I’ve been assured that Moliere defined a doctor as: A man who is paid to talk nonsense in a patient’s room, until nature has cured him, or the remedies have killed him. However, a doctor of Moliere’s time and acquaintance wants to deprive him of the honor of this happy definition, and has assured me that he is its author.

The paragraph following the one above mentioned a doctor named Mr. de Mauvilain. Apparently, the author was suggesting that de Mauvilain  was a more likely candidate for creator of the saying than Molière.

In 1720 the saying appeared in English within the book “The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown: Serious and Comical” in a section titled “Table-Talk, or, Short Amusements”:9

A Physician, says a late Author, is a grave formal Animal, who picks our Pockets by talking unintelligible Stuff in a sick Man’s Chamber, till Nature cures or Medicines kill him.

The 1736 edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” by U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin included a thematically related concise adage:10

God heals, and the Doctor takes the Fees.

In 1743 a variant statement on this topic appeared in “An Account of the Life and Writings of Herman Boerhaave” by William Burton:11

Mineral waters, salts, artificial sudorifics, soap, mercury, steel, a few vegetables, and proper exercise, serve all intentions; the rest are of little more use than to conceal the ignorance of the doubting physician, and by amusing the patient to prevent his despondence.

In 1788 a letter by the Irish novelist and cleric Laurence Sterne was published in a posthumous collection. Sterne employed the saying with an uncertain attribution:12

It is Lord Bacon, I think, who observes,—at least be it who it may that made the observation, it is not unworthy the great man whose name I have just written—That Physicians are old women, who sit by your bed-side till they kill you, or Nature cures you.

In 1823 a short version of the saying with an anonymous attribution appeared in “The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and the Arts” of London. The term “physic” meant the practice of medicine:13

“Physic,” says a foreign writer, “is the art of amusing the patient, while nature cures the disease”

In 1842 “The London Medical Gazette” published an article by H. Belinaye which credited Voltaire with a French instance of the saying:14

… what Voltaire slyly called “l’art d’amuser le malade, pendant que la nature le guérit”

This phrase can be translated as follows:

“the art of amusing the sick, while nature heals him”

In 1851 the prominent English playwright Ben Jonson received credit for an instance in the London journal “The Veterinarian”:15

… Ben Jonson’s satirical definition of physic—“The art of amusing the patient while Nature cures the disease.”

In 1866 the religious periodical “The Voice of Truth” credited Voltaire with an English instance of the saying:16

Voltaire defined medical practice, before the new school existed to be “the art of amusing the patient whilst nature cures the disease.”

In 1875 an instance was ascribed to the well-known English lexicographer Samuel Johnson:17

… Sam Johnson’s definition of physic being the art of amusing the patient whilst nature cures the disease.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. Jean Scholastique Pitton helped to popularize this saying by using an instance in 1678. Pitton attributed the words to Eraste, an anonymous figure. Famous people like Voltaire, Molière, Samuel Johnson, and Ben Jonson have each received credit for using expressions in this family; however, in every case the supporting evidence for authorship is weak or non-substantive. Perhaps future researchers will uncover illuminating citations.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Pablo Stafforini and Martin Dace whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

Image Notes: Public domain image of symbol used by emergency medical services which depicts the Rod of Asclepius.

  1. 1678, Les Eaux Chaudes de La Ville D’Aix (The Hot Waters of the City of Aix) par Monsieur I. S. Pitton (Jean Scholastique Pitton), Quote Page 207, Chez Charles David, Aix-les-Bains, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 2021, The Quotable Voltaire, Edited by Garry Apgar and Edward M. Langille, (The quotation is not listed in the section “Medicine—medical doctors”; no pertinent matches were found during searches for “doctor” and physician”), Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  3. 1640, Title: Outlandish Proverbs, selected by Mr. G. H. (George Herbert 1593-1633), Unnumbered Page, Proverb Number 169, Printer: Printed by T. Paine for Humphrey Blunden; at the Castle in Corn-hill, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link ↩︎
  4. 1683, Dialogues de la Santé (Health Dialogues) par De Mr. De *** (Nicolas Frémont d’Ablancourt), Dialogue Onzie’me (Eleventh Dialog), Quote Page 216 and 217, Chez Pierre Auboüin, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1695, Lettres Sur Toutes Sortes De Sujets, Avec Des Avis Sur La maniere de les écrire (Letters On All Kinds Of Subjects, With Opinions On How To Write Them) Par Monsieur de Vaumoriere, Troifiéme Edition, augmentée d’un grand nombre de preceptes & de Lettres (Third Edition, increased by a large number of precepts and Letters), Tome Second (Second Volume), Quote Page 230, Chez Jean Guignard, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1696, Furetieriana: Ou Les Bons Mots, et Les Remarques, (Furetieriana: Or Good Words, and Remarks), Mr. Furetiere, Abbé de Chalivoy de l’Academie Françoise (Antoine Furetière), Quote Page 144 and 145, Publisher: Chez François Foppens, A Brusselle. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1701, Dictionnaire Universel: Contenant generalement tous les Mots François tant vieux que modernes, & les Termes des Sciences Et Des Arts (Universal Dictionary: Generally containing all the French Words, both old and modern, & the Terms of Sciences and Arts), Tome Second (Second Volume), E to N, Seconde Edition (Second Edition), Recueilli & compilé par feu Messire Antoine Furetière, Abbé de Chalivoi de l’Academie Françoise (Collected & compiled by the late Messire Antoine Furetière, Abbot of Chalivoi of the Academie Françoise), Revuë, corrigée & augmentée par Monsieur Basnage de Bauval (Revised, corrected and expanded by Mr. Basnage de Beauval), Entry: Medecin (Doctor), Unnumbered Quote Page, Publisher: Chez Arnoud et Renier Leers, A La Haye et a Rotterdam (In The Hague and Rotterdam). (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1705, La Vie De M. De Moliere, Quote Page 27, Publisher: Chez Jacques Le Febvre, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1720, The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown: Serious and Comical, In Prose and Verse, Fifth Edition, Four Volumes, Table-Talk, or, Short Amusements, Quote Page 158, Printed for Sam Briscoe, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  10. 1736, Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1736, Being the Bissextile or Leap Year (Poor Richard’s Almanac), Benjamin Franklin, Month: November, Column: 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from American Antiquarian Society; accessed at rarebookroom.org on October 16, 2023) link ↩︎
  11. 1743, An Account of the Life and Writings of Herman Boerhaave by William Burton, Part 2, Section 1, Quote Page 105, Printed for Henry Lintot, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  12. 1788, Original Letters of The Late Reverend Laurence Sterne; Never Before Published, Letter XXIV, Date: Wednesday Noon, Start Page 132, Quote Page 133, Printed for Messrs. H. Chamberlaine, W. Colles, W. Gilbert, and more, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  13. 1823 January, The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and the Arts, Volume 14, Article 14: Analysis of Scientific Books by Floreat,  (Review of the book “Pharmacologia”), Start Page 359, Quote Page 359, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  14. 1842 March 18, The London Medical Gazette, Slow-Poisoners in the Nineteenth Century by H. Belinaye, Esq (For the Medical Gazette), Start Page 974, Quote Page 977, Column 2, Printed for Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, London. (Verified with scans) link ↩︎
  15. 1851 November, The Veterinarian, Volume 24, Number 287, Royal Veterinarian College, Quote Page 652, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  16. 1866 October, The Voice of Truth; or, Baptist Record Reviews, Start Page 234, Quote Page 235, Column 2, Elliot Stock, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  17. 1875, The Worthies of Cumberland by Henry Lonsdale M.D., Chapter: Abraham Fletcher, Start Page 67, Quote Page 89, George Routledge and Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
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