by Margaret Taylor, age 23 years
September to December, 1937
Meg continues as a student doctor at Medical College in London.
- Tuesday Jan 19th 1937– a bout of ‘flu, Alan’s 21st and engagement
- Saturday, May 1st 1937 – on friendship, Jane Eyre, integrity
- Monday, August 16th 1937 – holidays, friendship and marriage, Junior Surgery
- Friday, October 22nd 1937 – hospital life, poem for Joll, mortality
- Saturday Oct 23rd 1937 – cancer, death, war, pacifism
- Saturday, Dec 11th 1937 – tired wonderings, Queen Victoria film, stresses of a young doctor
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Tuesday, Jan 19th, 1937
A really wonderful opportunity to write here! I have got up this evening for the first time after ‘flu, and I have never known an evening be so long! I’m not supposed to read a great deal, and besides I am awfully tired of reading; I’ve thought of writing letters, but as I have already written home saying all the latest news, it would only be dull repeating if I did.
‘Flu was horrid, and the worst part of it was, and still is, the cascara! In a truly misguided moment, I allowed myself to be given three doses of the stuff as it seemed to be having no effect. The result was a series of violent colic attacks during the night, and they made me so miserable I felt I could have dissolved into a pool of tears with ease – and comfort! My tummy is still quite upset, and I have no appetite and feel sick at night time – memories I expect. But otherwise I am pretty well alright – the trouble at the moment is that the cold in the throat has travelled up Eustace a bit and blocked both my ears so that my head feels uncannily cotton-woolly, and I don’t hear properly – what I do hear I hear with my whole head, it seems, and it is very nerve-wracking when it goes on all day. My reward is coming however in the shape of a week’s holiday – doctor’s orders – at home. I am probably going on Friday and will come back for work at college again by the following Monday week. I suppose I will have to wander over to college and see Dr. Dickson and Prof. Cullis about missing this first fortnight of the Primary course. I don’t expect they will be overjoyed, but I don’t think they will try to make me stop – I should not feel much like working for a bit if I did stop, I know.
It is dreadful how being absolutely lazy and resting in bed infects you with the germ of idleness, so that when you get up, behold you have no initiative or ‘go’ at all, but just sit still and wish there was something worth doing (conveniently skipping in your mind anything feasible which crops up).
It is very odd, because I can’t hear my pen writing, although I know it is making the usual sort of noise alright. I can hear my watch ticking if I hold it right against my ear, but if it is more than an inch away, I can’t hear it at all. I have to listen to people, when they talk to me, very carefully or I don’t understand what they are saying. The sounds reverberate so that nothing is clear-cut but everything runs together in a buzz – not a 1d Buzz!
Last Saturday week, Alan had his 21st birthday party, and his and Peggy’s engagement was announced officially – by a gramophone record he made at Alexandria. Everything was a tremendous success that evening, and they played ping-pong in the dark with phosphorescent balls, and phosphorescent false noses – it seems to have gone awfully well. Pat wrote me a long letter describing how she and Betty got up again, after having been put to bed, and prowled about the landing until the guests arrived for supper about 1 a.m.! They saw all the dresses etc. and listened to all the revelry until about 2 a.m. when they crawled back to bed – and fell asleep at once I’m sure! Pat will be simply overjoyed that at length she will be able to let people know about Peggy and Alan, and not have to put them off with tactful half-truths all the time – rather difficult for a youngster who is dying to let them all into the precious secret!
I have spied a pack of cards, and if I can remember, or make up, any games of patience I think that is an excellent idea. Yes, no?
Cascara sagrada is a herbal remedy that used to be a common ingredient in some over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives.
The bark comes from a tree called the California buckthorn. This tree grows on the West Coast of the United States and parts of South America. Historically, it was used by Native Americans to treat a host of issues, including:
- digestive problems
- joint and muscle pain
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April May 1st 1937
Writing May instead of April has given me rather a nasty moment. Primary starts on May 31st, and to be actually in the fateful month is rather frightening when it comes upon you suddenly.
I have nothing special today to commit to paper; the reason why I dug out this book was because my mind just refused to settle down to work for a bit, and I have made a sacred vow not to read non-work books from now on. My conscience should doubtless revolt against my writing here as much as reading novels, but at the moment I’m stifling it!
Working for Primary has been much better fun than I thought at first it would be. Luckily, Jones and I get along together very well, and these three months have made us much greater friends, and we really know each other well now. We have a great deal in common in thoughts and ways of doing things. I like her very much, but she will never be the truly ‘friend that I know could exist for me’ – Whatley I think is about the nearest I know, but then again I don’t see much of her now, and she has many other friends. It is funny how very few people you meet you can really want to get to know intimately. Generally, you can tell them almost at once though when you do meet them. Whatley is one I have felt that for, Ileene another and – less approachable – Professor Keene and Dicky. Another kindred spirit is Maud. By the way, those two words “kindred spirit” just about hint at what I meant, as Mr. Rochester says our minds are “something akin.”
From quoting Mr. Rochester, I can’t resist going on to my pet theme of Jane Eyre. No other book touches me as that one does, and only the others by the same author evoke even an echo of the response that Jane Eyre evokes. I know there is nothing original in praising this book – it is the pet of thousands of people. But that only means that others feel it as I do, and though perhaps that brings a tiny ray of grief that others have uncovered and gathered up the precious spirit that feels so personal a discovery, yet I know that really I am deeply glad that others do know and love her as I do.
I doubt if men would respond to her mind as women would, but then I think rather the type of mind is called for rather than the sex. A person is living there in the leaves of that book, and to read the book with sympathy is, I think, to know Jane Eyre better than the majority of our friends. She has the sense of letting you into her heart, without having a special spring-clean and redecoration to make it unrecognisable for you when you enter. That is the secret of true living – to be founded upon a rock, true always to yourself and others in big and little things. That is what gives you the courage to face anyone or anything with a steady eye, and dispenses with all need of “pose” or affectation or concealment. It sounds easy, but if it were more people would succeed in achieving it.
I think perhaps Jane herself shows what it may cost you to keep the clear bubbles in the soul-springs. Her struggles to carry out what she knew her true nature demanded are described so perfectly that you struggle in sympathy as you read. It is so easy to slip over the slight dividing line, and just miss the harmony of a nature absolutely in tune in all its chords. Yet to possess such a nature, whatever it costs you to retain it, is to live as no others could and enjoy a sense of peace with life nothing else could give.
Now having got so far, we come to a pitfall. Realising the truth of what we’ve said, do we pat ourselves quietly on the back and say, “And that is what we are like”? It is very easily done, and I rather imagine I may have done it in the past. To understand and sympathise with that nature seems almost to confer the nature on oneself, but although of course it doesn’t, yet it helps in that direction I’m sure.
I can’t go any further into the mists of reasoning; it is getting a little too thick, and with one last glance at the pitfall we will turn aside and sit till it clears a little.
And meanwhile I must go and do some shopping or the shops will all be shut!
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Thursday Jun 10th 1937
It seems incredible, but I have got three days in front of me before I return home, and no work at all to do all the time! The secret is that Primary has just been completed, and I am staying up till Monday to see the results – I wouldn’t believe anybody if they wrote to tell me, I must see it actually myself!
Roberts has been up here, sheltering from the thunderstorm which has been raging for the last hour or so. And now it is time for bed, so this must be postponed until tomorrow – and tomorrow we have ‘test meals(?)’ again, no peace at all these days!
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Monday, August 16th 1937
I can’t work tonight – too tired, so this seems just the thing to tide me over till a reasonable bed-time. It is no use trying to fill in all the gaps between my entries here, besides it would be dull reading I should think. But anyway, I will say that I failed Primary – not very badly, but then most of the failures were on the verge I imagine.
Since then I have had six weeks’ holiday. Of that I spent 16 days in the middle of Ireland with Ileene Allen at Hightown. That I had a marvellous time needs no saying, for I always enjoy every moment in her company. We may well call ourselves twins, for, though that is not true physically, mentally we have twin feelings, and we are always in good humour in each other’s company, and the more we see of each other the more we want to see. I don’t think I shall easily forget the night-time talks we had as we lay in bed, both in the same room in the little wooden bungalow. How ‘deep’ and muddled we got, and what solemn nonsense we pronounced! Ileene produced the winner of the series by keeping half awake at something to one o’clock proving that Newton’s laws of mechanics were false! She knows no mechanics, and I am supposed to, but she won easily, and we had a wonderful nonsensical time arguing it, and nearly going off to sleep in the middle of logical propoundings.
I wish I knew that I would find someone who ‘fitted’ me perfectly; to many it seems silly to worry about that – there is loads of time, and I am certainly not in a hurry. But I can realise now how inexpressibly happy a really harmonious married couple could be, if their minds held the sympathy which real friendship, such as mine with Ileene, has. And a home life of that kind too – I would love the assurance that it is coming, though there is no hurry about it. I wonder often – shall I marry or not, and I always hope I shall, for I know there are men whom I could love, as love should be between husband and wife; who would keep each other’s hearts young.
Never mind, I can’t write it. Still I wish it would happen, and that I could know now that it would. I feel that either I shall marry and it will be the truly right person, or I shall remain unmarried, and let work take up all my time. I certainly don’t feel that I shall have an unhappy marriage, or any terrible love tragedy – perhaps I’m not impulsive enough!
And I was supposed to be writing about my six weeks holiday! The time I spent at home was spent mainly in playing tennis. It is tantalising how each year I get a few weeks’ holiday, just enough to get into the hang of tennis, and then back to work and all out of practice until I get another few weeks later on! But it is harder on those who play with me than on me myself.
Now, rather sketchily, I think we are about up-to-date, and I can say gently that at the moment I am at hospital again, doing Junior Surgery under Mr Joll and Miss Beck. And that explains why I am too tired to work this evening, for Monday is Joll’s operating day, and we have had five good hours of it in the theatre, striving madly in the atmosphere of quite unsubdued thunder, conjured up by Joll and Beck, both of whom were in great form as far as fury goes. And it goes miles with both of them!
Nobody pretends that either of them is good tempered, but they say that it is worthwhile getting their harsh words if you get their technique at the same time. Besides I lop-sidedly enjoy surviving some of Beck’s tantrums, and to think that her scathing remarks have no power to make you miserable takes all the sting, or most of it, out of her venom.
Her bark is many times worse than her bite, and as she bites us all almost indiscriminately we very soon forget about it. I have always had a terror of hard words, because I suppose I always reasoned that they were merited and therefore to be taken to heart. But now when half the time you are sworn at for someone else’s mistakes and the other half of the time for mistakes you did commit from sheer ignorance, then the torment ceases to overwhelm you, and you bob up again cheerfully instead of slowly rising from a whirlpool full of misery, only to be submerged again almost immediately. Besides, and more to the point, if Beck sees her blazing utterances don’t upset your equilibrium she doesn’t produce nearly so many, and you score both ways. Still, good old Beck, she is a marvel of efficiency, and what our famous – or infamous? – Mr Joll would do without her nobody knows!
That’s enough for tonight, we will continue, or rather reopen the ‘shop’ another time, there is heaps to say about Junior Surgery I assure you!
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Friday Oct 22nd 1937
When I last wrote it was near the beginning of the Joll Post. Now we have nearly reached the end and Gynaecology comes upon us in just over a week. These three months have passed very quickly indeed, and I am sorry to think that they are almost past, for I for one have thoroughly enjoyed their passage. It has been a very novel experience, and the thrill of surgery works its way into your bones amazingly quickly. I prefer surgery to medicine; it is much more straightforward, and the results are more spectacular, and so many lives are undeniably saved as they could not be by any other method. Whereas in medicine so much seems to be patching up things for a variable length of time, or waiting patiently for the disease to cure itself. I never thought that I should be enrolled in the band of those who ‘want to get on with it’, for I always used to be a marvel at letting things slide, and of putting off till the very last moment anything which I could persuade myself could be postponed.
I am very glad that on Gyneacology, we get a great deal of theatre work, for I should miss it dreadfully if I dropped it all together now.
The infamous Mr Joll has really turned out to be, at least superficially, quite a likeable man. He has, undoubtedly, a temper, but he very rarely exhibits it, and during his Friday rounds has time after time shown himself patient in the face of blank stupidity, and helpful to those trying vainly to produce a fairly intelligent answer. He is also undoubtedly an extremely clever and competent surgeon, and his knowledge outside the scope of surgery seems to be exceedingly extensive and accurate in detail. He teaches well too, for he has a very clear mind, and one that always founds even the most difficult problems on the simple fundamentals. Beck, too, though I wrote reams about her tantrums, can be, and has been, very kind and forbearing with us on many occasions. At the beginning of the post, I wrote about their faults; at the end I modify that by adding their good points, and that is how it should be, and helps to prove the old moral, that there is some good in even the worst – how flattered they would be to read this!
A poem for Joll
The other day Joll did his five-thousandth thyroid, and Sister A.2. wanted a poem to celebrate the occasion – apparently Sir James Berry had a poem when he had done only three thousand! Anyway, I was commissioned to produce a poem, and last night I tackled the rather delicate operation. I achieved a rather poor result, but it had to do, and we persuaded Registration to type it for us on R.F. headed paper. Sister A.2. has, it is rumoured, got a special cake for the occasion of his celebration, and both cake and poem are to be presented to him on Monday afternoon. I don’t know the details yet, but I hope that Mr Joll will have the grace to stop for tea, and not rush through the list, and finish gasping somewhere near suppertime. It would upset poor Sister dreadfully; she quite worships the man.
Hospital life is still a bit of a strain at times, and some aspects of it still upset me, though the kind of upset that used to worry me most – the horrid sight kind – have completely disappeared, and I am hardened into iron as far as pain for others is concerned – sounds callous I know, but it’s only self-protection, and has to be screwed on top, and I could unscrew it any time. But what does still ‘unrest’ me are the post-mortems on patients I knew when they were alive. It is just a little too far for me, even now, and it raises such great and deep wonderings, such as the separation of body and mind, or body and soul, and the query of life after death. It is only seen in the post-mortem room, how the belief in life after death could arise so spontaneously from the sight of a friend lying lifeless, yet so nearly as you knew them alive. It seems impossible that the personality that you knew, and had intercourse with, has just evaporated and become, in a few hours, non-existent. It seems an insult to human life that a human being, with its almost unlimited possibilities and ideas, should degenerate in so short a time into something that the pathologist’s knife divides into exhibits A to Z.
Something has so obviously left the body. Call it ‘life’ if you like, but it is not life in the meaning of simply the driving force that made the protoplasmic wheels go round. It is the personality of the person himself, the thing that made him the person he was, and which distinguished him from the millions of humans with similar organs and tissues. It seems natural to suppose that this ‘something’, the really essential being that we knew, has survived the running down of the organic frame containing it, and has flitted away into its own world of unfettered freedom.
Yet, a mind with no means of expressing itself, or giving vent to its faculties seems meaningless and unintelligible, and we return to our original state of profound query, which leaves us restless in mind, and still worried by the memories of the evacuated bodies of the post-mortem room.
Much too late for ghost stories, so Goodnight!
Footnote: Mr Joll
Cecil Joll worked at the Royal Free Hospital, in Pond Street, in Hampstead, performing thyroid surgery from 1911 until 1945, when he died at the age of 59.
The surgeon was known for performing up to 14 operations a day and taught hundreds of students and many surgeons to the highest standards.
He also established the hospital as London’s leading thyroid centre. Professor George Hamilton, professor of surgery at the Royal Free said: “Cecil is internationally known for his work in thyroid surgery.
“His name lives on with the instrument known as the ‘Joll extractor’ which is now universally used. The Royal Free is proud to display this in our surgical seminar room.”
Meg was commissioned to write a poem for the celebration when Mr. Joll achieved his 5,000th thyroid operation. See the poem here.
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Saturday Oct 23rd 1937
After yesterday’s outburst perhaps I should lie low for a bit, but I’m not going to. Being on surgery brings up other big things besides the post mortem worries. The thing which haunts you is cancer, and the tragedy is not only that you meet it so often, but that in so many of the cases you see for the first time the growth has gone too far for hopeful operation, and the prognosis is in terms of a few years at most. If only, you sigh, they would come earlier, and give you, and themselves, a chance. But the reply is always the same – “It didn’t hurt me, Doctor, so I didn’t take any notice of it”.
Joll, talking of this said that every method had been tried to get lay people to co-operate with us in that way, but he said that nothing was any good, and nothing would persuade a patient to confront a doctor with a lump and no symptoms.
A carcinoma of the breast which came into A.2. only yesterday said that she really went to her doctor about her legs, and only happened to mention the drawback to old age being that you get lumps and bumps everywhere. On being asked more about the said lumps and bumps, she said she had one – nothing at all really – in her breast. The doctor made her show him the lump, and so she was packed off to us almost immediately. Perhaps the greatest tragedy though, is to watch their faces, dreading the first signs of their realising what is the matter, and wondering how they will take it. The scared, tearful ones are pathetic, but the dazed and attempting-to-be-brave ones are worse. There are always the arguments for and against knowing everything about your condition, and in these cases it is I think, almost worse for them not to know, for their terrors and imaginings I should think must be terrible, when they suspect cancer.
I remember so well that about a couple of years ago I was sure that I was not a bit afraid of dying, and I remember saying I would not mind dying at all, I think I even said that the death of very near relations and friends would not upset me, as I knew they would be happy and nothing terrible had happened or would happen to them. I remember Whatley saying that unless you actually had experienced such a death you could not realise what it was like, and that really it was for yourself, and for the gap they left that you were miserable. I know I felt pretty cheap preaching away, with no experience, on matters in which I had no knowledge, while remembering she had lost her father, of whom she was extremely fond, not long before. But I know I owned up to talking through my hat, and that remembrance soothes me a little now.
For myself I own I am now less eager to die than I was two years ago. In fact I should be very, very sad, and probably panicky about dying if I knew it was coming soon, and going to cut off all my beautiful castles in the air for my future. But still I don’t honestly think I am afraid, and my experience of death, which has been pretty thorough during the last year, has inclined rather to reassure than upset me. It isn’t such a dreadful thing, and is rather a leaning back and relaxation than the tearing, rending agony that lurid literature pretends. A violent death perhaps would be very painful, but it comes quickly and unexpectedly and is over fast. Indeed a merciful Povidence surely turns all our tragedies into mercies in disguise – certainly nothing is ever so bad as you fear, experience has taught me the profound truth of that, and the knowledge of that truth helps you to give up worrying or meeting troubles even quarter-way.
Talking of violent death I must record that during the last year or two I have blossomed into a thorough-going Pacifist. So far my knowledge of Pacifism has been negligible or non-existent, but my belief in it has rested simply upon the fact that nothing in the world, that I have yet met, would persuade me to kill any human being against whom I had no feelings of personal hatred. Thus I would not take part in a war, and I reject war as an indefensible piece of conduct, for nothing, to me, can justify such meaningless destruction of innocent human beings. This simple conception of war – i.e. just viewing your own part in it – is popularly disregarded, and men – and women – brag noisily of national policy, security and defending their country. Surely it is more reasonable to look first to the step in front, and not speculate vaguely about what happens at the top of the hill. It would not be permissible, would it, to walk on and trample down fellow men, because hey happened to be lying just where you wanted to pass to reach the view? You could prattle as much as you liked about how important it was to see the magnificent view, and the beauties of nature it would reveal, but I should still think you shouldn’t have trodden on anybody to get there.
What’s the good of metaphors anyway!!
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Saturday, Dec 11th 1937
My mood is a curious one tonight. I am very very tired, but restless as well and languid – in fact full of the vague wonderings that usually prompt me to unearth this tome and scribble in it. There is nothing special that causes this upheaval of mental waters now and again, but some days the people and things around me are lit up by a different light from that of everyday, and I have time to sit back, as tonight, and let my thoughts run away, this this mood is conjured up. If only I had something to say it would be better, but there is nothing tangible enough for a pen to write, though the desire to write something, or anything, is great.
My gynaecological work keeps me on the go day after day, starting directly after breakfast and sending me fagged out home to supper and a welcoming bed. Perhaps the dramas, hardly even fully registered, during the daily rounds, work up fermenting in my mind until they bubble over. Certainly one sees life, and all sides and sorts of human nature at a big hospital. And though I am now 23, that is not really a vast age for the easy receipt of other people’s troubles, anxieties and murky secrets, and for an effortless assumption of dignity and authority among numberless adults looking to you as ‘doctor’ to help them.
This afternoon I saw the film “Queen Victoria”. It was frightfully good – very like Lytton Strachey’s biography. History is very real in the films, and there, even more than when considered in the abstract, conjures up questions about life and death that are enough to send anyone’s thoughts woolgathering in the limitless space of the mind. Those people who are, or were, so real have gone, all of them, and nothing can stop time stealing us away one by one after our allotted time. First you must go to school, then you must leave it, however much you want to stay, then you must choose something to do for your lifetime, and lastly you must die, and the whole population of which you were a unit will change till the world will be full of other people with whom you share only the fundamental qualities of humanity.
The BBC Theatre Orchestra are broadcasting, and to my tired senses their music making is like a mother’s hand clasped by a fretful child – soothing and calm, beautiful and rather lumpy to the throat. I should delight to be able to play music well, is a way of compassion that cannot be excelled. I should delight too, to be able to appreciate it as musicians proper can.
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