Mark Twain? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Markus Herz? Ernst Freiherr von Feuchtersleben? Walter C. Alvarez? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: All kinds of medical advice is available on the internet. However, the quality is variable, and some of the recommendations are deleterious. A pertinent quip has been circulating for decades. Here are two versions:
(1) Never read medical books. You might die of a misprint.
(2) Be careful when you’re reading health books. You may die of a misprint.
This remark has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain and the prominent U.S. physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., but I have not found any solid citations. Would you please explore this topic?
Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the German periodical “Der Gesellschafter oder Blätter für Geist und Herz” (“The Companion or Pages for Mind and Heart”) in 1817. The following excerpts in German are followed by translations into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1817 October 18, Periodical: Der Gesellschafter oder Blätter für Geist und Herz (The Companion or Pages for Mind and Heart), Article: Der Schluß folgt (The ending follows), Quote Page 683, Column … Continue reading
Zu einem Patienten, dem es zur Gewohnheit geworden war: durch medizinische Hülfsbücher sich selbst helfen zu wollen, sagte der verstorbene Dr. Herz: Nehmen Sie sich in Acht, Sie sterben einmal an einem Druckfehler!
The late Dr. Herz said to a patient who had become accustomed to trying to cure himself with medical manuals: “Be careful, you’re going to die one day from a printing error!”
In 1818 the full name of the doctor was specified as Marcus Herz in a short item printed in “Die Leuchte: Ein Zeitblatt für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Leben” (“The Lamp: A Journal for Science, Art and Life”):1818 May 27, Periodical: Die Leuchte: ein Zeitblatt für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Leben (The Lamp: A Journal for Science, Art and Life), Section: Allerlei aus Abu Taleb’s Miscellanenhefte (All … Continue reading
„Der stirbt noch an einem Druckfehler!” sagte Marcus Herz von einem, der sich aus Büchern kurirte.
“This one is going to die of a misprint!” said Marcus Herz of one who cured himself from books.
Markus Herz (also spelled Marcus Herz) was a prominent German physician and lecturer who died in 1803. Thus, these attributions occurred posthumously which reduced their credibility. Nevertheless, Markus Herz is the leading candidate for creator of this quip.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who died in 1894 received credit for the joke by 1939. Mark Twain who died in 1910 received credit by 1972. In both cases, this evidence is weak.
Additional details are available in the article on the Medium platform which is available here.
Image Notes: Portrait of The Apothecary by Gabriël Metsu circa 1651–67. This public domain image has been resized.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ken Hirsch who posted about this topic back in 2010 on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. Hirsch located a crucial citation crediting Markus Herz in 1841 together with other helpful citations which he shared via the Mark Twain Wikiquote Talk webpage. Also, thanks to researcher Barry Popik who explored this topic and posted his results in 2012. Popik shared excellent citations for Herz, Holmes, and Twain. Further, thanks to Fred Shapiro whose benchmark reference “The New Yale Book of Quotations” contains the 1841 citation.
Special thanks to Chris Waigl, Dan Goncharoff, and Amy West who provided advice regarding the German to English translations. Additional thanks to Google and DeepL for their translation systems. All errors are the responsibility of the Quote Investigator.
|↑1||1817 October 18, Periodical: Der Gesellschafter oder Blätter für Geist und Herz (The Companion or Pages for Mind and Heart), Article: Der Schluß folgt (The ending follows), Quote Page 683, Column 2, Publisher: In der Maurerschen Buchhandlung, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link|
|↑2||1818 May 27, Periodical: Die Leuchte: ein Zeitblatt für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Leben (The Lamp: A Journal for Science, Art and Life), Section: Allerlei aus Abu Taleb’s Miscellanenhefte (All Sorts of Things from Abu Taleb’s Miscellaneous Notebooks), Quote Page 167, Column 2, Publication: Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link|