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Mainpage: Workplace Mobbing in Academe

Commentary on Ottawa's Dismissal of Denis Rancourt, 2008

K. Westhues

The Ouster of John Elliotson

from University College London

in 1838

Commentary by Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo [1]
August 2009

A few months ago, about the same time as an American friend drew my attention to the recent dismissal of Denis Rancourt from the University of Ottawa, a Canadian friend drew my attention to the ouster of John Elliotson from University College London in 1838. Although 170 years apart, these two professorial eliminations were both referred to me as examples of the singular social process, academic mobbing, that I have been studying now for quite a while.

Click here for my commentary on the Rancourt dismissal, which can indeed be accurately identified, by standard definitions and indicators, as a case of administrative mobbing.

The present webpage is about the Elliotson ouster, which appears also to have been a mobbing case, at least as recounted by J. Milne Bramwell on pp. 3-14 of his book, Hypnotism: Its history, practice and theory (2nd ed., London, Alexander Moring, xvi+478 pp., 1906). The full text of this book is available online.

What follows is the relevant selections from Bramwell's book, strung together by some interpretive comments of my own.

Except for that minority of readers involved in the ongoing conflict in Ottawa over Rancourt's future, the main value of reflecting on both his case and Elliotson's is to gain from them a deeper understanding of what academic mobbing is and how it plays out. Certain similarities between these two professors make their cases especially instructive. However separated in time, the two men appear to be kindred spirits, above all in their fanatic, obsessive penchant for telling their perception of the truth, regardless of who is thereby offended, thus at the risk of calling forth angry reactions.

With medical degrees from both Edinburgh and Cambridge, John Elliotson (1791-1868) established a reputatiion early in his career as open to innovative ideas, insistent on empirical methods of research, and ready to experiment with new medical procedures that promised to benefit patients' health. In 1831, he was elected Professor of Physic in the new, secular London University, and helped transform it into the institution that continues to be known even now as University College London. An advocate of close ties between academic and clinical work, he became physician to University College Hospital in 1834.

Bramwell relates how a sympathetic commentator at the time described Elliotson's lectures:

They were telling things, he said, full of learning, acuteness, careful discrimination, philosophic liberality and daring, and often wonderfully accurate decisiveness. Their interest was quite peculiar. The cases were carefully selected, each stage marked with the greatest nicety, and the principles, whatever they were, on which the patient was treated, recklessly bared to the world. In addition, there was a large dash of novelty, either in the treatment or in its explanation. Elliotson's motto was everlastingly "Onward!" If he did not look with hate, he did with distrust, on all that was old—the past seemed nothing to him, the future boundless. Beyond the mere narrative description of disease, he thought that nothing had been done before his time—that the medical edifice had yet to be erected, and he was determined to have his full share of the labour. The spirit of progress had permeated his whole being. With so much of art unexplored before him, and so little of life for the task, his genius strove to reach the goal in leaps, and sought distinction in medicine like a youthful Napoleon in war....

The same commentator set down Elliotson's main enduring contributions to the practice of medicine:

We owe to him the employment of quinine in heroic doses, the recognition of the value of iodide of potassium, the use of prussic acid in vomiting, iron in chorea, sulphate of copper in diarrhoea, the employment of creosote, etc. The Lancet also pointed out that Elliotson had shown how the heart sounds were influenced by posture, and had also drawn attention to many other hitherto unnoticed phenomena connected with auscultation. Elliotson, in fact, was the earliest to use the stethoscope in England, and began to do so immediately after the publication of Laennec's work.

Other professors of medicine responded to Elliotson's innovations by ignoring them (the German word is Todschweigen, meaning death by silence) or by making fun of the man himself—standard mobbing techniques even in the initial, informal stage of the process:

. . . he was ridiculed and abused. The stethoscope, as well as the facts of percussion and auscultation as described by Auenbrugger, were condemned as fallacies by the foremost teachers of medicine in London, while, even at a much later date, they were treated at St. Thomas's with indignation or silent contempt. At the College of Physicians a senior fellow, in a Croonian Lecture, denounced the folly of carrying a piece of wood into a sick-room. Another condemned the stethoscope as worse than nonsense, and said: " Oh! It's just the thing for Elliotson to rave about." While a third, on seeing one on Elliotson's table, said: "Ah! Do you use that hocus pocus ?" On Elliotson replying that it was highly important, he added: "You will learn nothing by it, and, if you do, you cannot treat disease the better."

As if adopting the stethoscope were not bad enough, Elliotson got interested in mesmerism, a loose collection of half-scientific, half-mystical procedures that involved magnets and hypnosis for inducing anesthesia in surgery. It is fair to say this was not Elliotson's most enduring contribution to medical science, but it attracted a wide student following at the time, especially after he shifted his demonstrations from hospital wards to university lecture theatres. Enjoying greater respect from students or clients or patients than from colleagues is a dangerous situation for any professional to be in, and Elliotson was no exception.

His colleagues, while boasting of their refusal to witness his demonstrations, persecuted and annoyed him in many petty and disgraceful ways. The Dean, in advising him to desist, urged that the interests of the School ought to be considered, rather than those of science and humanity, and that the risk of the loss of public favour was of more importance than the truth of the wonderful facts alleged, or of their benefit in the treatment of disease. To this Elliotson replied "that the institution was established for the discovery and dissemination of truth; all other considerations were secondary, and we should lead the public, not the public us. The sole question was whether the matter were the truth or not."

The dean in this case epitomized the priority of countless university administrators then as now: the well-being and prosperity of the institution. Elliotson's contrary priority was "the discovery and dissemination of truth." This difference of priorities lies at the root of many if not most cases of administrative mobbing. To this difference Upton Sinclair devoted almost all of his 1923 book, The Goose-Step, a Study of American Education: at all costs, the administrator does not want to risk loss of public favour, while just as absolutely, the scholar or scientist does not want to risk the loss of truth. Thus is the stage set for an academic auto de fé, a ritual for bringing institutional authority to bear on the truth-seeker, for showing the world the superiority of the collectivity over the individual.

In 1838, the Council of University College passed the following resolution: "That the Hospital Committee be instructed to take such steps as they shall deem most advisable to prevent the practice of mesmerism or animal magnetism in future within the Hospital." Elliotson was therefore ordered to cease mesmerising his patients, and immediately resigned his appointments, never afterwards entering either College or Hospital. He felt the insult keenly, especially as he was senior physician, and had done much to increase the reputation and prosperity of the School. In addition, the Hospital owed its origin to him, and he had made enemies amongst his colleagues by insisting that the Medical School was inefficient without one. Further, he asserted that the action of the Council was unreasonable, as the majority of its members had refused to witness his experiments or even to discuss the subject with him.

Mobbing means the repositioning of the target from within the circle of good and respectable workers to outside that circle. In Elliotson's case, the Council's resolution formalized that repositioning, made it official.

That, however, was not quite the end of it. Once the snowballing process of elimination gets going, it often continues even past the organizational boundary. Lawrence Summers was long gone from his position as president of Harvard University, having been run out of the job by a spirited workplace mob, when he was invited in late summer of 2007, to give a talk to the University of California Board of Regents. The anti-Summers movement rose again, forcing cancellation of the talk. Something similar happened in the Elliotson case, eight years after he resigned from University College; Elliotson was luckier than Summers, and managed in the end to give his talk.

In 1846, Elliotson's turn came to deliver the Harveian Oration, but, as soon as it was known that he had accepted the office, he was attacked in the most savage manner, in order to prevent his appearing. For example, The Lancet called him a professional pariah, stated that his oration would strike a vital blow at legitimate medicine, and would be a black infamy degrading the arms of the College. Undeterred by this, Elliotson made mesmerism the subject of his address. Without referring to the attacks which had been made upon him, he simply stated the result of his researches, and respectfully invited the College to examine alleged facts of overwhelming interest and importance. He exhorted his hearers to study mesmerism calmly and dispassionately, and reminded them, with more truth than tact, that all the greatest discoveries in medical science, and the most important improvements in its practice, had been opposed by the profession in the most violent and unprincipled manner. As examples of scientific discoveries which had been received in this way, he cited those of the lacteal vessels, the thoracic duct, the sexual system of plants, the circulation of the blood, the sounds of the chest and their relation to the diseases of the heart and lungs and their coverings, etc. As instances of improvement in practice which had been treated in like manner, he referred to the employment of Peruvian bark, inoculation and vaccination for small-pox, the use of mild dressings, instead of boiling oil, in gun-shot wounds, the ligature of the bleeding vessels after operation, instead of the application of burning pitch or red-hot irons, etc. We should, Elliotson said, never forget these things, nor allow authority, conceit, habit, or the fear of ridicule to make us hostile to truth. We should always have before our eyes that memorable passage in Harvey's works : "True philosophers, compelled by the love of truth and wisdom, never fancy themselves so wise and full of sense as not to yield to truth from any source and at all times: nor are they so narrow-minded as to believe any art or science has been handed down in such a state of perfection to us by our predecessors that nothing remains for future industry."

Beyond the common, perennial basis of academic mobbing, the target's failure to put institutional loyalty ahead of loyalty to truth, the Elliotson case holds a further important lesson. Being eliminated from the faculty of University College London neither killed nor disabled him. Unlike many mobbing targets, he was not driven to suicide nor plunged into chronic depression. He continued to work, helped establish a medical journal called Zoist, and there continued to publish the results of his research on mesmerism and other topics. Not surprisingly, his erstwhile mobbers continued to disparage him.

In The Lancet of July 31st, 1847, for example, the following editorial statement appeared: " Of course the parties concerned in the infamous publication (the Zoist) are in a state of perpetual mortification at their fallen and degraded position, and therefore they bite and rail; the leper [sic] must be taken with his spots." The subjects of the various surgical operations were universally regarded either as impostors or as persons insensible to pain. In Nottinghamshire, in 1842, Mr. Ward, surgeon, amputated a thigh during mesmeric trance; the patient lay perfectly calm during the whole operation, and not a muscle was seen to twitch. The case, reported to the Royal Medical and Ghirurgical Society, was badly received; and it was even asserted that the patient had been trained not to express pain. Dr. Marshall Hall suggested that the man was an impostor, because he had been absolutely quiet during the operation; if he had not been simulating insensibility, he would have had reflex movements in the other leg. Dr. Copland proposed that no account of such a paper having been read before the Society should be entered in its minutes. He asserted that "if the history of the man experiencing no agony during the operation were true, the fact was unworthy of their consideration, because pain was a wise provision of nature, and patients ought to suffer pain while their surgeons were operating; they were all the better for it and recovered better." Eight years afterwards, Dr. Marshall Hall publicly stated at a meeting of the Society that the patient had confessed that he had suffered during the operation. The doctor was promptly challenged to give his authority, and replied that he had received the information from a personal acquaintance, who, in his turn, had received it from a third party, but that he was not permitted to divulge their names, and would not give any further information on the subject. The man was still living, and signed a solemn declaration to the effect that the operation had been absolutely painless. Dr. Ashburner attended the next meeting, and asked permission to read this statement in opposition to Dr. Marshall Hall's, but the Society would not hear him.

Elliotson died in 1868, at the age of seventy-seven. His story is a reminder that academic mobbing happened in universities long ago, just as it does now, but that it is rarely a death sentence. Targets recover, pull themselves together and continue to pursue their agendas, sometimes to lasting effect. Spare a thought for John Elliotson next time your doctor puts a stethoscope to your back or chest.

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[1] With thanks to Ontario social worker Richard Schwindt.