Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Guest blog - Dr. Patrick Napier


Good day to you! I trust you are well? Quite well? Yes, you look very healthy, I must say. A pain in your left leg? Well, of course, I’ll take a look at it – perhaps if I visit tomorrow morning?

Oh, yes, I’m fully qualified, and quite experienced. I am a graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and I studied medicine at Edinburgh. Two years there, and I was apprenticed to Dr. Louden and Dr. Snow, whose reputation you’ll know, no doubt.

Well, things are not too bad in Ballater. It’s not like a town practice: not so much contagious disease, and those illnesses connected with poverty, such as you might see in the Old Town tenements of Edinburgh, are rare here. The village is regular and clean. The factors of the various estates here see to it that pensioners are paid reasonably and the estate houses are mostly well kept, and while I hear that the poors’ fund is barely adequate there are some other trusts and so on that help those in need. Of course there is a good deal of damp down by the river, where some houses – including, I might say, the manse – have been built using clay and are examples of very poor workmanship. But the air is remarkably healthy and of course there are the spa waters. Chalybeate, yes – really quite rusty looking as they come out of the earth, but they are very fine to drink, not like some of the more sulphurous springs. And yes, it makes for a very varied and, at least in the summer, quite prosperous practice. Just about enough for me to handle on my own. It’s tempting to think of taking on a student, but of course that is not so easily come about as it would be in a town with a university. I’d need to find some young lad already in the parish, with ambitions, perhaps, to become a physician, and the money to pay me until he goes to do some formal study. And could we house him? I’m not sure we could fit him in. After all, we seem to have developed quite a household staff! Not to mention the animals: I am sure all kinds of creatures follow my wife Hippolyta about the village, waiting for a moment when they can look neglected and she will take them in. Of course there are the benefits of eggs and pork, and I have always been fond of a cat or two about the place … and I have grown attached, I suppose, to the hen that favours my study … It would have been helpful, perhaps, if we could have adopted a pony that would listen to anyone apart from Hippolyta: I feel sometimes it detracts from the dignity people seek in their physician to have his wife deliver him to their houses. But then, the pony needs its exercise, and Hippolyta needs fresh air, and it’s useful that she can drive safely to places to paint.

I’m prodigiously proud of her painting, you know. To think that people want to buy pictures made by my wife! I know some men – and women, too – think that a woman going into business is not fitting, particularly a respectable gentlewoman like Hippolyta – like the wife of most physicians. But painting is not quite business, after all: she is very talented, and it is quite right that others should enjoy that and that she should benefit from their enjoyment. And it does help, financially. I worry lest some other doctor finds Ballater as congenial as I and sets up in competition – would there be enough business for two medical men? It would be so easy to be outdone. And medicine is such a chancy business, anyway: just one mistake, or even one perceived mistake, and one’s reputation can be ruined. What if I were to mis-set someone’s broken leg, and then find that no one trusts me to tackle their gall stones? It’s a great worry.

If there is one lack in the village, it is another professional man to talk with. The minister is a pleasant fellow, but rather older than I and looking forward to the quiet life of retirement more than keeping up to date with changes in the church. There is no Episcopal clergyman, and those who fly in and take our services are so often in a rush to go on to the next congregation. Since poor Mr. Strong’s death there is no man of law, either. But when there is the opportunity, I find working with Mr. Durris, the sheriff’s man, very interesting – he is clearly educated even if he is not very forthcoming about his background - and after all, the patients he presents me with are usually dead. I wonder if I should have stayed in Edinburgh and tried for an anatomy instructor? Though pharmacy is fascinating, too: I do relish having my own little workshop. But then what if one makes a mistake with that? The consequences could be disastrous.

I shouldn’t like anyone to think that I was anxious about my work. An anxious doctor does not give a patient confidence. And I don’t like to think that Hippolyta thinks I worry overmuch: after all, a woman should be able to rely on her husband to be strong and to support her and the household. And really, it is only sometimes that I think ‘What if?’ or ‘I pray I may not …’ And if it is not the middle of the night (and I generally do sleep very well), then I can go and play my violin or the box piano, just softly, and somehow my worries take the shape of the notes and seep gently into the air. Mistakes barely matter there, with no one listening but the cats (though sometimes one of them will give me a critical look if the bow slips), and I can ease out of the heavy cloak of my anxieties and escape, free and content. Until the next time.

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