Doctors: Cutting Words

A man of true science uses but few hard words, and those only when none other will answer his purpose; whereas the smatterer in science . . . thinks that by mouthing hard words he proves that he understands hard things.

—"Dr. Cuticle" in Herman Melville's White Jacket.

By Melville's criterion, suggests Dr. Lois DeBakey in the New England Journal of Medicine, medicine must be full of "smatterers in science." Hospital records, casual conversations and technical reports "are loaded with shoptalk, incomprehensible to nonphysicians and often confusing even to physicians from other regions." A member of a notable family of surgeons—one...

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