Monday, February 19, 2007


Last week I asked Dear Edie (Schwager) to find some interesting quotations about medical writing in her fabulous archives. I wanted to share them with you.

These quotations are from a wonderful book, Familiar Medical Quotations, edited by Maurice B. Strauss, MD (Little, Brown, 1968). Strauss was at that time Associate Dean and Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. (Ibid. in this segment refers to this book.)

You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir! Martin J. Routh (1755-1854) Quoted in Quarterly Review, July 1878. (The italics are Routh’s.) (Ibid., 668)

John Shaw Billings: First have something to say, 2nd say it, 3rd stop when you have said it, and finally give it an accurate title.. (Prescription for writing a medical paper.) (Ibid., 670)

Sir F. M. R. Walshe: I see you have an interesting paper in the latest number of Brain. When is the English translation coming out?. (Remark to a London physician on the publication of a somewhat obscure paper.) (Ibid., 672)

Richard M; Hewitt, in The Physician-Writer’s Book (Ibid., 672): I do not know two people who agree about [hyphenation], although I know a number who have bowed to authority in order to eat.

This must be the same Dr. Hewitt who was the AMWA President in 1956 and who was a recipient of the AMWA Golden Apple award.

Stanley Gilder, in Medical Journal of Australia, 1962. (Ibid., 673): The cardinal sin in medical writing is not grammatical error but obscurity.

H. G. Wells: No passion in the world, no love or hate, is equal to the passion to change someone else’s draft.

Edward Weeks: Editing is the most companionable form of education.

Louis Pasteur: In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind. (Dans les champs de l’observation l’hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.) (Inaugural address, Pasteur Institute, Paris, 1

Edward FitzGerald, in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.

Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it may be said:/ ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’

Edna St. Vincent Millay: A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.

Barrett Wendell: Words and sentences are subjects of revision; paragraphs and whole compositions are subjects of prevision.

Gene Fowler: Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper [or your computer screen] until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

Peter De Vries: I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.

Mark Twain: The difference between the almost-right word & [sic] the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Eli Lilly: Never be satisfied with anything—everything can be done better than it is now being done. (1926)

Mario Pei: If you scoff at language, how, save in terms of language, will you scoff?

Theodore M. Bernstein: This may seem like a fine point, but fine points can draw blood.

Morris Fishbein, in the Introduction to his book Medical Writing, 3rd ed. (Ibid., 672): Increasing organization in the field of medicine, as in every other field of human endeavor, has raised the level of contributions to medical literature. Far too often, however, physicians [and medical writers?] still prepare their contributions with a striving and agony and delay comparable to the delivery of human progeny by one untutored in the refinements of obstetrics.

As you may know, Dr. Fishbein was AMWA President in 1959, and the preeminent physician in the United States in his time. I wrote about him in Medical Communications, the predecessor of our journal, when I was its Editor (for 8 years). In the same issue, I obtained and published posthumous tributes to him by his physician, family and friends.

Edith Schwager, in Medical English Usage and Abusage (133): Few writers could equal the feat of Watson and Crick, who described the double helix (the molecular structure of nucleic acids) in 900 words, one table, and six references. Arthur Kornberg reported on the enzymatic synthesis of DNA in 430 words. Cournand and Ranges reported on the first catheterization of the human heart in 950 words. Fritz A. Lipmann described coenzyme A in 250 words, one table, and five references.

Edith Schwager: In medical writing, there is no danger in being too precise—only in being imprecise. (Ibid., Preface, xii)

Edith Schwager: Humana sum, ergo erro. (I am human, therefore I err.) (Merci beaucoup, René Descartes.)

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