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File 5 - Article 11 Previous Index Next
Author: Alec Milne
Title: A Reply to David Donnison

I spent an engaged holiday period reading David Donnison's autobiographical 'The Last of the Guardians'. The title is a reference to Plato's Republic, and his story is that of a boy, himself, growing up with precious little contact with his parents. His father was a Colonial Administrator in Burma in the years before and during the war years when the country was over run by the Japanese. So his story was partly historical, partly family narrative and partly personal.

His father belonged to that breed of British of which we feel proud; the dedicated people who administered what were then colonies, in a spirit of fairness, decency and law giving. People who did not spare themselves. Their children exiled in England, living in foster care, were the ones who would seem to pay the price. The outbreak of war meant extraordinary hardships for his parents and bleak loneliness for David.

Burma's boundaries were fixed by the British when in fact Burma's multiple ethnic groups defied any such arbitrary division. At the heart of the book are the complications and setbacks as the British sought to guide the country into a self -governing democracy - in vain. A brutal military elite is now in power.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the country's democratic leader of choice but now under house arrest, is the daughter of the original freedom fighter, and as it dawns upon the reader, had no choice but follow in his footsteps.

This is the final strand. So much of what we are to become, is written for us.

David was of course being deliberately provocative in File No 3, but we must take his remarks seriously. In the sheltered glades of academia where he is wont to reside, there is the complete conviction, a mind set, that the basic tenets of medicine are unchallengeable. Tinker with the edges to get things right - be charitable to the host of complimentary and alternatives that offer deference and no challenge and (if the postal code is right), they have more time to listen. Some of my best friends are doctors who will pay tribute to the good work that Kingston did. But challenge them on their own ground and see what happens. At the height of the MMR vaccine controversy, I asked my friend the doctor if they (there were two of them) thought it possible that a healthy child brought up in a healthy environment would not need any immunisation shots at all, and the roof fell in. On me.

Once upon a time the Holy Roman Church had an equal claim on what were the country's best brains. It was as dominant then as the medical/pharmaceutical profession is today. Humans then were exactly the same as they are today, with their loves and hates, their insecurities and their need, then, to believe in a just and merciful God. Only the technology was different: their buildings still stand. The Jesuits were an intellectual elite whose only wish was to save souls. It took an obscure monk in Germany to challenge their hegemony. At one time it was said that the doctor's best pill was his bedside manner. At the same time public health authorities were sorting out the drains and getting clean water into the houses. One simply does not question medical sincerity. They would love to have more time to talk, listen and reassure their patients. At the local Health Centre a doctor can ask to see you to discuss the results of tests done elsewhere. But the patient who wishes to see a particular doctor has to learn to wait. Postcodes are increasingly important if you wish to have time with your doctor.

We (note now the glazed look) are the true inheritors of Hippocrates. We know that unless people accept responsibility for their health, as in theory they do about their marriage and bank account, then and only then can there be any progress in personal and national health. All else follows.

So start with this question. Is a cold to be caught from some one, or is it something that develops in response to unquantifiable needs? Is it healthy, as the pioneers have always claimed, or is it just an upper respiratory infection? Are the attitudes of personal responsibility, and a belief that our bodies know best at coming up with the right answers, sufficiently radical to offer an alternative to our present medical system? And is it just chance that this attitude is extended to encourage people to believe in the benefits of fresh air and fresh food. Does it matter to know how the body and mind work, and how emotions play their part? There is however an important caveat.

The nation is built on the deeds not just of its heroes, but of all those who put their cause, their ideals, before their personal welfare. These people have no thought of self. David has a huge sense of social responsibility, and is like his father - guided by his thoughts and beliefs, with no quarter given. But to live long and stay healthy are not incompatible ideals. David's father lived until he was ninety.

'Last of the Guardians' David Donnison ISBN 0954291395