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An Address delivered at the Forty-third Annual Meeting
of the New EnglAND HOSPITAL FOR
WOMEN AND CHILDREN
RICHARD C. CABOT, M.D.
Instructor in Medicine in the Harvard Medical School; Physician to Out Patients
at the Massachusetts General Hospital
PRINTED BY PERMISSION
1907 Social Service Comm.
HARVARD COLLEGE LIBSARY
JAN 16 1923
FOREGROUNDS AND BACKGROUNDS IN
WORK FOR THE SICK.
There are two kinds of blindness from which I have suffered in my medical work. As I am now beginning to be convalescent, I note, with the sensibility of the recent sufferer, similar misfortunes in those around me. Blindness to what is before you just this minute and never before, or blindness to foregrounds, is a very common disease, due to the habit of looking off into the distance over the head (as it were) of the fact before you.
But there is another type of blindness in which the sufferer can see nothing except the facts directly in front of his nose, this I call blindness to backgrounds. I will mention a group of examples of each type.
In my medical work at the Massachusetts General Hospital I see about 30 patients a day, or 3,000 in my four months' service. As I sit in my chair behind the desk, Abraham Cohen, of Salem Street approaches, and sits down to tell me the tale of his sufferings; the chances are ten to one that I shall look out of my eyes and see, not Abraham Cohen, but a Jew, not the sharp, clear, outlines of this unique sufferer, but the vague, misty composite photograph of all the thousands of Jews who in the past ten years have shuffled up to me with bent back and deprecating eyes, and taken their seats upon this same stool to tell their story. I see a Jew, a nervous, complaining, whimpering Jew, with his beard upon his chest and the inevitable, dirty black frock-coat flapping about his knees. I do not see this man at all. I merge him in the hazy background of the average Jew.
I look behind, beyond, through this actual flesh-and-blood man, to my own habitual mental image of what I expect to see. Perhaps, if I am a little less blind than usual to-day, I may hear what he says instead of what I expect him to say. I may notice something in the way his hand lies on his knee, something that is queer, unexpected.