By Jared Rhoads
Ninety years ago this week, on May 17, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge addressed several thousand of the nation’s physicians as they gathered for the annual meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA) in Washington, D.C. He had high praise for his distinguished audience, commending them for the advancements made by the field in modern healing, preventive measures, and sanitation. He extolled medicine’s “conservation of human health and life” as “one of the greatest achievements in the advance of civilization.” “The debt which we owe to the science of medicine,” he said, “is simply beyond computation or comprehension.”
Coolidge was right about the enormous improvements brought about by science and medicine. By the early part of the 20th century, the average working life of English-speaking men had doubled over the previous three hundred years, a fact popularized by the great physician William Osler and referenced by the President in his speech. The President’s message that day, however, was not just laudatory; it was also profound. He did not merely recognize medicine’s contribution toward mitigating disease and increasing life expectancy, he went further, praising the root cause of those advances: reason.
Reason, if you ask a philosopher, is the faculty that identifies and integrates the raw perceptual-level material that we get from our senses. It enables us to obtain knowledge about the world. Living by reason, Coolidge said, means “making observations, collecting accurate information, comparing ascertained facts, and working toward established conclusions.” Progress depends on it.
For Coolidge, keeping an open mind was critical to living a life of reason. To get “the benefits of discovery and invention,” we must operate on the basis of reason, not force, custom, or caste. By not closing ourselves off to new ideas and lines of inquiry, we can find truths and principles in all sorts of matters, including scientific ones. Americans have thrived, he observed, because we have been exceptionally good at exploring new ideas and pursuing knowledge “in whatsoever direction it may lead.”
Coolidge knew that in medicine, reason and open-mindedness had not always been the norm. The ancient Greeks took the first steps away from superstition and toward a causal understanding of disease, but got mired in fanciful metaphors (four “humors” of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile were imagined to lead to four “qualities” in the body: heat, cold, moisture, and dryness). In the second century AD, Galen revolutionized the study of anatomy, but his personality was so domineering and his writings were so overconfident that his many errors went unchallenged for more than a thousand years. Even in the 19th century, the medical field famously took decades after the pioneering work of Semmelweiss and Pasteur to accept the germ theory of disease, in part due to professional obstinacy (Pasteur, a bacteriologist, was an outsider to the medical profession).
By Coolidge’s time, however, the culture of medicine was changing for the better. Scientific evidence was supplanting tradition, and communication was improving across fields, even with specialization on the rise. Coolidge summarizes: “Cooperation and tolerance, which have been developed so widely in industry and social relations, are now found in a marked degree in the medical profession.… In years gone by, physicians were apt to be suspicious and intolerant of other schools and of other methods of treatment. There has been a great change. The modern broad-minded physician is willing to use or to recommend whatever methods seem best suited to the case in hand.”
As we hit the 90-year mark on Coolidge’s fine speech, much is still relevant in his words. We can be thankful that medical progress has continued to make our lives better. We can also appreciate the underlying science that makes it possible. But perhaps most vital to this progress, we can heed his advice about the power of reason, and keep our minds simultaneously open and focused on what is true. If Americans can manage that, then our “constant advancement,” in Coolidge’s phrase, will continue.
President Coolidge’s Speech
Coolidge, C. Address at the Annual Session of the American Medical Association, Washington, D.C., May 17, 1927.
Jared Rhoads, MS, MPH, is a health policy research staffer at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. He is an active collaborator with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he was also a Frederic Bastiat Fellow. He lives in Lebanon, NH, with his wife and two children, and volunteers with the Coolidge Foundation as a debate judge and scholarship jury member.